More adviser firings take place at public colleges than at private, and there’s a reason for that: Private colleges have a better chance of getting away with direct censorship. To date, the courts have not forbidden them from censoring or otherwise interfering with the independence of their campus newspapers. So the way is legally clear for them to control content. Such actions are not without cost, however. Students, advisers and journalism watchdog groups jump on colleges that try it, often causing a uproar in the college’s community.
One such incident drew national attention: the resignation under pressure by Dr. William Lawbaugh at Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland. In 2000, the Mountain Echo, a paper that had won several national awards during Lawbaugh’s 15-year tenure as adviser, published articles the administration found too racy for a religious college environment.
Professor Carol Hinds, then provost, sent Lawbaugh a letter of reprimand for “constant inaccuracies in the paper” and, with then-President George Houston, ordered him to take a more active role in the paper before publication.
“I will not sit here and deny to you that there are issues with the institution’s administration disagreeing with content,” April Nolan, a college spokesperson, told the Student Press Law Center at the time. “The president is irate about the content. … He doesn’t think our students are being taught good journalism practice.”
However, the college contended Lawbaugh was reprimanded not for the paper’s articles, but for failing to exercise control over its budget. It withheld a scheduled raise.
Lawbaugh refused to censor stories.
“I find prior review an odious practice,” he said when Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, inquired about the order. “When you try to muzzle young adults, you teach bad journalism and bad civics.”
After a year, the college gave him the raise, but stipulated that the Mountain Echo must show “appropriate respect and loyalty to St. Mary’s College.”
Lawbaugh sweated out his job for a year and then, in summer of 2002, resigned.
“I’m sick and tired of having to fight administrators for what should be taken for granted in an open society — freedom of expression for college editors,” he told the Society of Collegiate Journalists Reporter newsletter. Hinds did not respond to a request for comment.
Lawbaugh’s stand made him a hero to many in the field. The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation in 2002 gave him its inaugural Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award. College Media Advisers Inc., which had named him Distinguished Multimedia Adviser of the year in 1999, issued a censure of Mount St. Mary’s.