2nd campus newspaper adviser ousted in Kansas

Thursday, May 27, 2004

A second college newspaper adviser in Kansas has been fired after a controversy involving material the paper published. On April 20, Jennifer Schartz was fired as adviser to Barton County Community College’s student newspaper Interrobang, as well as removed from her teaching position.

Schartz, a 23-year veteran former writer and editor for the Great Bend (Kan.) Tribune, was not tenured. According to Kansas statute she does not have to be informed why she was fired. State law does, however, allow for a provisional hearing with a mutual hearing officer to look into her First Amendment claims that school officials attempted to censor the newspaper.

Interrobang published a letter on March 10 from a former BCCC basketball player who was cut from the team. The BCCC Board of Trust said the letter portrayed the basketball coach in a negative light. The school’s lawyer, Randy Henry, sent Schartz a letter telling her to stop printing negative letters about people in the Great Bend college’s “family.”

Schartz told The Wichita Eagle for a May 19 story, “There's a perception — and it's an erroneous perception — that I tell students what to put in the paper, that I'm getting my agenda in the paper. … Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Schartz told the First Amendment Center Online that she would fight the board of trust’s decision to fire her to “wherever it takes her.” Schartz’s hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Meanwhile, Ron Johnson, adviser to the Kansas State Collegian, the university's student newspaper, was told on May 10 that he would no longer be adviser and director of the Kansas State Student Publications Inc.

Some student staffers and friends of Johnson say he was reassigned because of a recent protest of the paper by the university’s Black Student Union after the paper did not cover a recent Big 12 Conference on Black Student Government. The conference brought 1,000 students to the Manhattan campus. Johnson, like most advisers to student-run newspapers at public colleges, does not dictate the content of the paper, saying that such control would be a violation of the students’ First Amendment free-press rights.

The Associated Press reported on May 18 that Stephen White, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, upheld the recommendation of Todd Simon, director of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and removed Johnson as adviser to the Collegian and as director of student publications.

The Collegian is a prize-winning paper, having received several top college-newspaper awards. Johnson has served as director and adviser of the paper and the yearbook, Royal Purple, since 1989. From 1993-95 Johnson also served as president of College Media Advisers, which named him Distinguished Four-Year Newspaper adviser in 1993.

The Collegian reported that the Board of Student Publications Inc., which consists of five students, additional advisers of theCollegian and Royal Purple, as well as Simon and Johnson and a faculty representative, voted unanimously to keep Johnson as publications adviser. Despite the board’s vote, the final decision on Johnson’s job is up to White and Provost James R. Coffman.

Simon told the First Amendment Center Online that Johnson had been asked to remain on the faculty as an instructor for the next two years.

On May 21, according to the Kansas State University employment opportunities Web site, Simon began advertising for applicants for a yearlong interim adviser and director of student publications. That search was suspended today, but Simon could not be reached for comment on why.

Johnson told the First Amendment Center Online that he had not pursued legal action and that he wanted to “find a constructive way to fix this; let’s find the problem and show the students, advisers and administrators how to fix it. All I want is due process and fairness. I will do whatever I can to fight this situation.”

Johnson said he also was pleased with a May 25 decision by the Society of Professional Journalists to send an eight-member task force to investigate the situation and remind administrators of the rights of journalism students and advisers at public colleges.

The College Media Advisers' Chris Carroll told the First Amendment Center Online that when schools figure out that “they can’t go after students, they go after the adviser.” Carroll is advocate and former president of the group that represents hundreds of advisers from across that nation.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Virginia-based Student Press Law Center, said adviser ousters were “a national problem and more of a problem each year.” Goodman told the First Amendment Center Online that in the past month his group had been informed of six such ousters.

The SPLC’s Web site discusses court rulings that have found school officials at public colleges — like Kansas State and BCCC — “may not exercise the power of a private publisher over student publications simply because they provide financial support. The fact that public universities are considered an arm of the state distinguishes them from a private publisher.”

According to the SPLC, courts have held that “school officials cannot:…fire an editor or adviser, ‘stack’ a student media board, discipline staff members or take any other action that is motivated by an attempt to control, manipulate or punish past or future content.”

Referring to those court-case outcomes Schartz asked, “Why does the college not understand that, that the law supersedes their decision?”

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