A hero without sword or shield

Monday, November 27, 2000
William Lawbaugh

Let me tell you about a true First Amendment hero. This is a real
story, not the kind you see on television with formula plots, one-dimensional
characters and certain endings. The story is all the more remarkable because
the hero in this case is trying to protect the First Amendment rights of others
even though he can’t claim them for himself.

His name is William Lawbaugh. For 14 years, he has taught journalism
at Mount Saint Mary’s College, a wonderful institution with a proud history
nestled against the Catoctin Mountains in central Maryland.

William Lawbaugh is a spiritual man, and he and his wife have seven
children. He has great credentials as a professional journalist but his passion
is for the classroom. He holds a doctorate and teaches with verve and
erudition. He also serves as adviser to the student newspaper,
The Mountain Echo, and the
Pridwin yearbook, both award-winning
publications. His students call him “Doc.”

Doc Lawbaugh, in fact, is just the kind of person you would want in a
college classroom, whether you’re a student, a parent, or a college president.
But for the past year or so, his teaching career has been on hold and his
family’s finances in disarray. All because he believes in living what he

Lawbaugh’s troubles came about when college officials began to
pressure him to exert more control over the student newspaper’s content.
Apparently, President George Houston and Provost Carol Hinds thought some
stories were too “juicy,” some Valentine’s Day ads too racy, and the
writing and editing not as good as it should be.

So they told Lawbaugh to begin reviewing material before it went into
the newspaper. Lawbaugh explained that prior review was, in effect, censorship
and that he couldn’t be a part of that. He pointed out that the College Media
Advisers association, for which he served on the ethics committee, considers
prior review anathema to good student journalism.

“I find prior review to be an odious practice,” says
Lawbaugh, “for purely pedagogical reasons. When you try to muzzle young
adults, you teach bad journalism and bad civics.”

But the president and the provost weren’t persuaded, maintaining in
effect that officials at a private, religious college have a First Amendment
right to deny First Amendment rights to their students and faculty. And they
were prepared to assert this prerogative in no uncertain terms.

So they placed a letter of reprimand in Lawbaugh’s personnel file.
They withheld his annual raise of $3,806. And they denied him a reasonable and
fair procedure for confronting the actions against him.

Further, they vilified the students and their newspaper in public,
even going so far as to make unfounded charges of mismanagement of student
funds. The local newspaper quoted from a letter that President Houston had
written, characterizing the student newspaper as “a terrible
newspaper,” sloppy, inaccurate and poorly prepared. He described the
student journalists as “young people who wobble between responsible
maturity and pathetic adolescence.” (In that same year, the newspaper had
won 11 awards for its work.)

It could have been worse. They might have fired Lawbaugh outright. It
happens rather regularly to college media advisers, even at public
universities, where the First Amendment is supposed to prevail.

At Central Missouri State in Warrensburg, Barbara Lach-Smith was fired
from her position after the student newspaper she had advised for six years
published stories pointing out that the school’s board had given the departing
president a three-year contract for $620,000, a one-year leave of absence,
special benefits for his wife and computer services.

At Peru State College in Nebraska, student newspaper adviser Matt
Mauch says he was fired because the college administration didn’t like it when
the student newspaper published stories they thought were negative.

And at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, John Schmitt lost his
job as adviser to the school newspaper after it published, among other
hard-hitting articles, an award-winning story about the questionable financial
dealings of a college official at another college before she came to Fort
Valley State.

Similar conflicts across the nation are unfolding. Some college media
advisers who stand up for their students survive, but the wounds are many and
the wins are few.

Even without the First Amendment as sword and shield, Lawbaugh and his
students were quite resourceful. They took their story to the community,
colleagues and professional organizations.

The College Media Advisers issued a rare censure of Mount Saint Mary’s
College. Letters of protest came from the American Association of University
Professors, the Student Press Law Center, the Society of Professional
Journalists, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

College alumni who used to work on The
Mountain Echo
formed an organization to mentor and protect their
successors; it now has its own Web site and plans on going national.

Perhaps the most significant development, however, was that student
editors Justin Moor and Kelley Wilson spent months organizing an all-day
“Celebration of the First Amendment” event on campus. They persuaded
half a dozen national experts on freedom of religion, freedom of speech,
freedom of the press, and academic freedom to travel to Mount Saint Mary’s to
participate. The president and the provost failed to show.

The student editors plan to collect the transcripts of the
presentations by the experts and put them in a handbook for other student
journalists facing the problems they have endured.

As for Bill Lawbaugh, he had planned to take leave from his teaching
and advising during the coming year but just learned that his superiors have
denied his request for the sabbatical. Even so, he has no regrets about putting
both his personal and professional life on the line.

Why would he have taken on such a task, knowing it would put both his
personal and professional life in jeopardy? Obviously, his students were
foremost in his mind. “At times, I feel like this is my final exam, and
they are grading me for a change.”

But he also had other small colleges like Mount Saint Mary’s in mind.
“I have received gut-wrenching e-mails and letters from media advisers at
sick schools, and they fear this virus will spread to them,” he said.
“I suspect many college presidents are watching this drama play out, to
see if they can get away with shooting the adviser instead of the messenger for
content they do not like.”

In the end, the power of the president and the provost may prevail,
but their example should not.

William Lawbaugh sets an example not only for his colleagues but also
his students. He stood up for these young people, put their interests above his
own and, and modeled what he teaches. Most importantly, he put his trust in the
ability and judgment of the young people he teaches.

As for his superiors, they trashed their own students in public, put
their interests above those of their students, and showed they neither trusted
nor appreciated their ability and judgment.

Who is the real hero here?

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