There is a major problem if in a democratic country freedom of the press and speech is being stifled at college newspapers to censor their stories and turning them into propaganda machines. That was the case this past September at Butler University, and the student paper The Butler Collegian when the Butler University Dean of the College of Communications Gary Edgerton removed the paper’s popular advisor Loni Smith McKown from her position for reasons that were illegitimate and went against university policies. McKown’s dismissal also came with unreasonable and impossible conditions for McKown to keep her professorship in the School of Journalism.
Even worse than McKown’s dismissal was the choice of replacement as the interim advisor, the university’s Associate Director of Public Relations, Marc Allan. The appointment was a direct conflict of interest aimed at taking away the freedom of speech from the student paper and aimed at turning into a propaganda machine for the university or at the very least neutralize their criticism of the administration. The case has become symptomatic of the greater problem of university administrators attempting to stifle and censor their student newspapers when they criticize the administration despite the fact that their speech should be protected as part of the First Amendment.
McKown is an adjunct professor at the Eugene S. Pulliam School of Journalism that is part of the College of Communication at Butler University, where she has been teaching since 2009. She is a popular print and broadcast journalist in Indianapolis having worked as an investigative producer for WISH-TV Channel 8 for five years and was a reporter for the Indianapolis Star for 11 years. McKown had been the advisor for the Butler Collegian since 2011, and it was going to be her sixth academic year advising the paper and its student editors. McKown has a reputation as a hard-hitting reporter, and she brought that philosophy to her teaching and her duties with the Collegian.
The controversy began on Aug. 19 when McKown received an email from Dean Edgerton about “potential budget cuts due to lower projected enrollments.” As she always did for newsworthy items that passed by her, McKown forwarded the email to the student paper. The students followed up on the story, prompting the dean to send another email to find out who forwarded the email. The email had a “confidentiality statement,” at the bottom, which McKown did not see. McKown admitted her mistake and apologized. It was enough the Edgerton put the wheels in motion to fire McKown from her advisor position.
Just days later, Edgerton lined up Associate Director of Public Relations Marc Allan, who also serves as an adjunct journalism instructor in the department to take over in the interim as the faculty advisor. Although the dean gave McKown an audience to defend herself on Sept. 2, on Sept. 4 he had already written up her letter dismissing her of her duties, which she received on Sept. 8. The letter included unrealistic conditions to retain her “full-time faculty position.” She had to obey to “complete adherence” of the orders including being forbidden to “advise any Collegian full- or part-time staff member either directly or indirectly.” If she did any misstep that “Failure to abide by this directive will lead to additional discipline up to and including termination.”
The American Association of University Professors'(AAUP) Academe Blog argued there were five reasons the dismissal was “illegitimate,” and thoroughly went against Butler’s own rules. McKown was dismissed technically for ignoring confidentiality by forwarding the email, but it was not enforceable according to the university’s rules unless “the revelation would violate the law or the rights of others.” The email did not, McKown had a right to forward it as did any other faculty because the confidentiality was not clear, neither were the reasons for it and one cannot be dismissed for ignoring a courtesy.
Secondly, the Dean was blaming McKown for the Collegian reporters being “too aggressive,” however, as AAUP noted that goes against the Collegian handbook, “The adviser may not be punished or removed based on any content decision made by student editors.” Third, the AAUP pointed out according to Butler’s handbook the Dean of the College of Communications could not remove the paper advisor only the director of the School of Journalism and “the advisor…. may serve in that capacity indefinitely at the discretion of the director and The Collegian staff.” Fourth, AAUP indicated Allen’s appointment was not allowed according to the handbook since the advisor had to be “full-time faculty member in the School of Journalism.”
Lastly, the AAUP found the worst offense to be the conditions Dean Edgerton imposed on McKown to keep her job, the ban not to advise students for the paper “either directly or indirectly” or face “additional discipline up to and including termination.” The AAUP called the conditions “repressive” and impossible to keep because it also goes against her job as a journalism professor. The AAUP argued the ban is a “direct violation of Butler’s policies protecting academic freedom and free speech.” The association concluded that the “threat is so inherent repressive and so completely indefensible that it indicates the true purpose of removing McKown was the attempt to silence freedom of speech on campus.”
The real reason for dismissing McKown had more with her doing her job too well, and the Collegian was becoming too much of a professional paper. Even McKown told the Indianapolis Business Journal, “I believe I have been removed from the position because I do my job well.” For five years since 2011, McKown was well liked, her employee rating just in April was “above expectations,” “consistently performs at a level that meets, and often exceeds, the institution’s expectations.” The Atlantic noted was Edgerton, who had signed her evaluation, but less than five months later was reprimanding her and dismissing her.
The underlying problem, Edgerton, and the university wanted to censor the student paper, the Butler Collegian, limiting their freedom of speech, and ensure negative stories uncomfortable for the university would no longer be published. Edgerton also accused McKown of “being too heavily involved in editorial choices” in the Collegian, something students adamantly denied. The Dean also accused McKown as being “too investigative” the students at the paper “too aggressive.” McKown revealed to IBJ that the students “decide the content and the coverage. … Most of the time, they don’t even pay attention to my tips.”
The paper was also winning awards it never did before under McKown’s advisement for its “assertive” controversial, thought-provoking coverage, that actually questioned the university administration. As a result, the administration had a strained and “hostile” relationship with the Collegian. The Collegian had won the “national Mark of Excellence award from the Society of Professional Journalists, a Pacemaker-considered the Pulitzer Prize for student publications and a national award from Investigative Reporters and Editors.”
If illegitimately, dismissing McKown was not enough bad press for the university, Edgerton’s appointment of one the university’s PR directors smelled of stifling freedom of speech, and the press, a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. As the Atlantic indicated it looked like an “attempt to discourage negative coverage.” The move looked like the Dean placed a puppet in the position, who would ensure the students would be kept in line and would not allow any critical articles to be published.
As the AAUP pointed out “the job of an advisor is to help and encourage students to investigate negative news about the administration, not merely to punt on anything that might get him fired.” The association determined “the true aim of removing McKown was to make the content of the student newspaper more positive for the administration’s brand management.” The Dean thought Marc Allen’s 20-year plus journalism career as a reporter for the Indianapolis Star and as the Collegian’s former public editor before becoming the university’s associate PR director, would be enough to deflect criticism, but it was not.
The backlash was immediate from both academic and journalism circles. The outrage was more towards the university’s appointment of Allen and the administration’s outrage towards the Collegian than even McKown’s dismissal. The consensus among all the academics or journalists that criticized the removal and appointment was that appointing Allen as the advisor was a conflict of interest. That it crossed the line that was violated ethics and the student’s rights and violated the university’s own policies “protecting academic freedom and free speech,” “taking a sledgehammer to one of the tenets of democracy.” They all believe the students are acting as journalists as they will after they graduate, and need to report the university’s news good or bad whether positive or not towards the administration, and “more objectivity” was needed in an advisor.
The president of the College Media Association Rachele Kanigel responded that it was a “conflict of interest.” Kanigel expressed in her statement, “It’s a clear conflict of interest for a university public relations professional to advise a college newspaper. How could students feel free to seek this person’s advice when his primary job is to protect the university’s image and reputation? It’s a clear conflict of interest for a university public relations professional to advise a college newspaper.”
Andrew Seaman who serves as the chair of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists issued a strong condemnation on the society’s blog. Seaman thought a line was crossed, “There are obvious lines in what is and is not acceptable in journalism, and one must wonder whether the people making decisions for Butler University’s school newspaper and journalism school understand those very basic principles.” Seaman equated universities and college as small communities replicating the larger country and the same laws apply, “No U.S. citizen should accept the government restraining the press, and that should not stop at the grounds of any educational institution.”
Indianapolis Star journalist and editor Suzette Hackey said Allan was “not the right person for the job,” and “his duties are directly at odds with helping aspiring journalists who may need guidance uncovering unflattering news about the university or its administration.” Hackey also pointed out that “university officials… were directly violating The Collegian’s staff manual.” Hackey chastised university officials for manipulating the student paper, writing, “Student publications should not be used as public relations propaganda machines for the administration, nor should student journalists feel pressured to make their universities look good.”
Feeling the heat from the backlash Dean Edgerton attempted to defend his decision, issuing a statement. Edgerton wrote, “The short-term appointment of him as an interim advisor was merely a stopgap measure until a more permanent replacement could be found. Also, three Indianapolis journalists had agreed to be available to advise students on sensitive stories, allowing them to completely bypass [Allan] if they chose to do so. Never was the appointment meant to result in more positive coverage for the university.”
The scenario was far from explainable; there is never a justification for violating the most basic rights guaranteed in a democracy. In an attempt to quash the backlash, criticism and ultimate public relations disaster, Edgerton removed Allan from the interim post. Then the dean appointed Nancy Whitmore, the director of the Eugene S. Pulliam School of Journalism as the interim adviser. Meanwhile, McKown is fighting her dismissal by “filing a university grievance”
and requesting official investigations by the National College Media Advisers and the Society of Professional Journalists.” McKown is also getting legal help “from the National Student Press Law Center.”
Although Butler University might believe they solved their problem, it speaks to the wider problem that still remains, freedom of speech and press at universities and colleges are being violated by university officials. Higher education and other private institutions are trying to silence those that might be critical and upset the apple cart using threats and their positions of power to quash free speech, although doing so is illegal and a blatant violation of rights. The Atlantic pointed out that the case at Butler University was one of a series where college officials looked to hinder free speech and freedom of the press in their student publications. There have been incidents at “Northern Michigan University, Delta State University in Mississippi, and Muscatine Community College in Iowa.”
Although the courts have in the past protected free speech and campus publications, there has been a trend to do so less, requiring more action to be done. The major watershed decision that protected campus free speech was Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969, where the Supreme Court ruled students were allowed to protest the Vietnam War. The justices writing in their opinion stated, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Unfortunately, more recently the courts have been watering down their protection of “First Amendment rights” for students, with a recent Seventh Circuit Court ruling from 2005 Hosty v. Carter. After the Governors State University student paper the Innovator wrote some articles critical of the university administration, the Dean of Students Patricia Carter closed down the paper. The Seventh Circuit court ruled against the students using as the basis the 1988 Supreme Court ruling Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier which determined that “high school newspapers can be censored for ‘pedagogical’ reasons.”
College newspapers are not the same as high school papers as they are literally laboratories preparing students for jobs after graduation, and college students are adults. Before Hazelwood, as the Atlantic indicated “college students were adults under the law and therefore had the same First Amendment protections as any other reporters.” Judge Terence T. Evans in his dissenting opinion recognized the difference between a high school and college newspapers. Evans acknowledged, “The Innovator, as opposed to writing merely about football games, actually chose to publish hard-hitting stories. And these articles were critical of the school administration. In response, rather than applauding the young journalists, the University decided to prohibit publication unless a school official reviewed the paper’s content before it was printed. Few restrictions on speech seem to run more afoul of basic First Amendment values.”
To counter this trend in the courts state legislators have been passing laws to protect student newspapers in public colleges and universities against censorship by the administration. Among the states, the passed laws protecting college newspapers include Oregon (2007), Illinois (2008), and North Dakota (2015). California went a step further amending a 1992 law in 2006 that protected “student expression at private schools,” and making the law also cover universities and colleges.
Illinois passed the Illinois College Campus Press Act in 2007 explicitly to overturn Hosty v. Carter, and the law works. The law “designates student-run newspapers on college campuses as public forums essentially guarantee the independence of the college student press.” The law was tested in Moore v. Watson, a case with some similarities the McKown dismissal at Butler University.
Gerian Steven Moore, the faculty adviser for the re-established student newspaper Temp at Chicago State University, was dismissed after the administrators became irritated at the Tempo run under editor George Providence II for articles published that criticized the university and its administration. Similar to Butler the executive director of university relations, Patricia Arnold took over supervising advisor Moore and the Tempo before Moore’s dismissal.
Arnold attacked the paper under Moore’s advisement claiming there was “poor grammar and spelling, unnecessary personal attacks and creating a negative impression of the university.” Moore was dismissed in 2008 after over a year in the post, then a war escalated between editor Providence and Arnold until the paper was shuttered in 2009 when Providence left the university.
As the First Amendment Center recounts, “Moore and Providence sued Arnold and the university president for violating their First Amendment rights and their rights under the Illinois College Campus Press Act.” US District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled in Moore’s favor in March 2012 determining that Arnold dismissed Moore because of “her objection to Tempo’s protected speech,” and ruled that Moore should be reinstated something that had been offered in a prior settlement.
The judge did less for Providence refusing to force to the university to readmit him, reestablish the Tempo and reinstate him as its editor, because Providence had voluntarily left Chicago State, and the paper fell apart in his absence. Although a triumph for protected freedom of speech for the students and the rights of its advisors, the ruling should have ordered that a student newspaper be reestablished. The rights and protections granted, however, gave students the ability to recommence a free press.
Unfortunately, for McKown, Indiana has yet to establish such a law that would require her to be reinstated by Butler as the Collegian’s advisor. College newspapers in states that do not have extra laws “explicitly” protecting their free speech are seeing university official attempt to trample on their rights and silenced their criticism, preferring to “see news and the student newspaper as playing the role of a PR front for the university.” Although McKown is trying to get back her position through grievances and complaints, more laws need to be passed to protect college newspapers and their advisors.
At the least, the backlash Butler University faced will prevent their officials from further interfering with the Collegian’s free speech, but cases like Butler’s will happen again. The recent cases and their outcomes should show university officials that they could never win when they try to manipulate or suppress the student presses. At the end in the land of free, freedom of speech prevails, and universities and colleges should embrace and foster it as it embodies the academic freedom and intellectual curiosity that institutions of higher learning symbolize and suppose to teach the next generation.