Educators censure Georgia university for firing newspaper adviser

Friday, August 20, 1999

A national association of college journalism advisers has announced its vote to censure Fort Valley State University, condemning officials at the Georgia school for firing a communications professor last year.

The board of directors for College Media Advisers, in approving the censure, said Fort Valley officials fired John Schmitt because of disagreements over the content of the campus newspaper. As the newspaper's adviser, Schmitt encouraged students to run more investigative articles.

“If university administrators are allowed to continue to dismiss highly qualified educators and advisers solely because they disagree with the content of the student media, then no one is safe in this profession,” the board wrote in a statement sent to the First Amendment Center. “The communications industry will suffer because the quality of graduates entering the industry will suffer.”

With the censure, the association of more than 750 advisers officially condemns the middle Georgia college for being “oppressive of students' rights to free expression and hostile toward those professionals it employs to advise the student press.”

Schmitt joined the Fort Valley faculty in 1997 as an assistant communications professor. As the student newspaper adviser, Schmitt guided the Peachite to many awards, including one from the Georgia Student Press Association for an investigative article about a campus administrator.

The November 1997 article chronicled the career of Josephine Davis, the university's vice president for academic affairs. Davis spent three years as president of York College in Queens, N.Y., before resigning in 1994 after an audit questioned some of the college's financial practices.

The board's announcement last week of the censure follows a federal lawsuit Schmitt filed last June against the university and the state Board of Regents. Like the censure action, the lawsuit contends that university officials fired Schmitt because of the articles, particularly the piece about Davis.

The board's vote marks the first time the group has censured any university since it adopted its “Adviser Advocate Policy” in March 1998. The policy created steps for the association to take when dealing with disputes between advisers and universities.

Censure is the board's last resort after numerous attempts to work with university officials on student press rights. Although the board voted last May to censure Fort Valley school officials, it informed the school of the action last week.

Jan Childress, a Texas Tech University professor who serves as chair of the group's Adviser Advocate Committee, says the policy's goal is to educate officials about student press rights.

“We don't want to censure; we want to educate,” Childress said. “In most instances, that's all that it takes.”

For example, Childress noted that while officials at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, dismissed a student newspaper adviser recently, they agreed to cooperate in developing seminars about the student press.

But officials at Fort Valley, she said, refused to cooperate.

“We felt that the adviser at Fort Valley State had been punished for encouraging that freedom among his students,” Childress said. “We felt like it was very important to work with the school to help them understand why students have that right.”

Fort Valley President Oscar Prater didn't return calls. But in published reports last year, Prater said that the newspaper articles “played no role in whether I thought he should come back or not.”