When administrators at the University of Texas at Tyler issued a new student publications policy, the staff of the school newspaper faced a challenge we never expected to see outside of a journalism textbook.
As editors of the paper, we had to decide if and how we could challenge the decision, which granted administrators on a publications board the ability to “determine the character and policies of all student publications.”
Compounding the problem, we also learned that our adviser, Vanessa Curry, would not have her contract renewed.
What we faced was a complicated issue for any student journalist to tackle. We had to combat the policy maturely and persuasively – and, even more difficult, we had to cover the events fairly.
As one of the editors of the paper (I was the entertainment editor at the time), I wondered how we could possibly cover such a big issue responsibly when we were personally involved.
At our first meeting about the university’s proposed publications policy, our chief editor, Melissa Tresner, read the policy to us and asked how we felt. At the time, only Tresner knew that our adviser’s contract had not been renewed, and we were all very calm about our decision to send a copy of the policy to the Student Press Law Center for review.
I had no idea what was coming next.
At a staff meeting a week later, surrounded by a dozen silent students, Curry told us that her contract had not been renewed for the fall.
I was shocked by the announcement. Ms. Curry was the first person I had met at the university, and I had come to think of her as a friend as well as a teacher.
Trying to put aside our anger at the nonrenewal of Curry’s contract, we had to decide on a strategy both for fighting the policy and covering the story.
From the start, we knew we had to keep the contract dispute and the publications policy as separate issues – to make it clear that we were not just retaliating against the contract nonrenewal.
“Yes, we were fighting for Ms. Curry. We were rooting for her behind the scenes, but we were also fighting the [policy],” Melissa said.
To get the word out to our classmates, we ordered a total of 150 black T-shirts brazenly marked with the words “Freedom of the Press.” The first shipment disappeared within 20 minutes as students saw the shirts and flocked to the newsroom.
Our friend and columnist Janna McClure spread the fight even further, spending hours at a time in the newsroom calling media outlets and universities in other cities and offering a press kit she assembled.
Those initial decisions were made with relative ease in a series of small-group meetings and informal discussions.
Making decisions, however, wasn’t always easy for us as tension built up in the newsroom as the end of the semester – accompanied by Tresner’s graduation and Curry’s contract’s expiration – rapidly approached.
Our frustration reached its boiling point at an April 12 meeting of the university’s faculty senate.
When university President Rodney Mabry addressed the senators, he blamed the incidents on poor communication by the newspaper – and then put on a shirt that he had custom-made to match the “Freedom of the Press” T-shirts students wore in protest.
“I don’t mean to mock you at all,” he said as he slipped on the shirt.
But students felt insulted, nonetheless.
“I think he was trying to show that we were just immature kids who really didn’t know what we were doing,” said Tresner, a mother of two. “I don’t think he meant it to be insulting, but that’s what it was.”
After the meeting, the ever-vocal McClure said it best as she stormed through the newsroom: “I just wanted to scream!”
The biggest challenge turned out to be keeping the stories balanced. There was some concern because Tresner, who wrote the stories about the controversy, was also the paper’s biggest participant in the events.
In our discussions, we made it clear that our opinions were to stay out of the news stories, and we’d seek out other students’ thoughts on the issue – even though some opinions that were printed were, painfully, against us.
“The main problem that I had writing the stories was getting in touch with the administration,” Tresner said. “They wouldn’t return my calls. It made it really difficult because I really wanted to make sure the story was balanced, to make sure that it had both sides.” She admitted it was also hard to put aside anger and remain on task.
After weeks of media attention, Mabry announced on May 3 that Curry’s contract had been renewed and the policy would be changed. It came as a victory to The Patriot, but we all felt that the damage had already been done.
The trust between the newspaper and the administration was damaged, and it will take a long time for either side to forget or forgive.
But the lesson left behind is clear – strong communication between the student newspaper and administration is essential to the success of both.
Still, even after the stress and disagreements, Tresner is confident about the newspaper’s success.
“We did everything we set out to do,” she said. “We were fair in everything that was said … and we all acted professionally and maturely.”
Robert Boggs is a junior at the University of Texas at Tyler. He is editor in chief of The Patriot.