Illinois college students say administrators shut down newspaper operations

Thursday, April 12, 2001

A college newspaper in Illinois, the Innovator, may have been a bit too innovative for school administrators who, two student editors claim, locked the doors to the newspaper's office last October.

Two Governors State University graduate students, Innovator editors Margaret Hosty and Jeni Porche, filed a lawsuit in late January in U.S. District Court, claiming school officials had violated their First Amendment rights.

Hosty and Porche are seeking more than $1.1 million in punitive and compensatory damages and an injunction against school administrators to restrain them from interfering with the students' free-press and speech rights.

Hosty and Porche say that after the July 10 issue, the first one published under their supervision, they regularly included articles and editorials about instructors and administrators they considered incompetent.

“I think the administrators had a fear of what might be published,” Hosty said.

“When we took over the paper, we changed the format, encouraged discourse and tried to include articles that represented the student voice,” Porche said. “I think that caused some alarm on the part of administrators.”

The paper's former adviser, Geoffrey de Laforcade, said the quality of the Innovator started to improve after Hosty and Porche took the helm. “The tone was strongly investigative,” he said. “They were perceived by the administration as being dangerous,” he added.

De Laforcade was dismissed from the faculty in June but allowed to stay on as paid newspaper adviser until December, when GSU told him he was no longer needed in that position, either.

The editors and Governors State University officials disagree on exactly what happened, but here are the major points of contention:

  • De Laforcade said that soon after the July 10 issue was released, school officials began to hint that they wanted him to dissuade the editors from criticizing faculty. “I never did” try to dissuade them, he said.
  • GSU administrators told editors Hosty and Porche that they should resign either from the Innovator or from their elected positions as student senators. Serving in the Student Senate and writing articles about it, the editors said GSU told them, might be a conflict of interest.

    Hosty said she and Porche were the only writers regularly available to cover student government and that they abstained from voting on matters pertaining to the Innovator.

  • Someone broke into and damaged the Innovator offices last summer. Porche and Hosty said the break-ins interfered with newspaper operations and that the administration did nothing about it. The administration said it changed the office locks to prevent further break-ins after the student editors filed their complaint.

    “We changed the locks because the people who ran the Innovator had reported break-ins,” said Connie Zonka, GSU director of public affairs. “But we gave [the editors] keys right away.”

  • The editors say the locks were changed as part of an effort to stop the newspaper from publishing. On Oct. 25, their lawsuit claims, administrators disconnected telephone lines to the newspaper, confiscated letters, tampered with e-mail messages and denied editors access to newspaper files, in addition to changing the locks.

    The two editors were locked out of the newspaper office for more than five weeks, Hosty said. But she conceded that campus security guards would let them in.

  • Hosty and Porche were officially stripped of their editorial positions on March 1, 2001, by the Student Communications Media Board. Hosty sent an e-mail message to school administrators stating that she believed the university was violating school regulations by firing them. “I have yet to receive any response,” she said.

    Hosty said that Donald Bell, administrative liaison between the Innovator and GSU, placed an armed university police officer outside the March 1 media board meeting to prevent her from entering the room. Bell declined to comment.

    But one week after Hosty and Porche were fired, the SCMB decided to permit the student journalists to continue their work as editors with unlimited access to the newspaper office until April 30, when their tenure expires, Hosty said. She said administrators provided no explanation for the reversal.

  • Another flashpoint was over the Oct. 31 issue of the Innovator. Administrators objected to its coverage of de Laforcade's June dismissal.

    “With few exceptions, the Oct. 31 edition of the Innovator just did not measure up to accepted journalistic standards of professionalism,” wrote GSU President Stuart Fagan in a Nov. 3 letter to the “Governors State University Community.”

    “The Innovator did not enlighten nor did it inform the GSU community through thoughtful, accurate and fair reporting. Instead of fairness in reporting, the reader was presented with an angry barrage of unsubstantiated allegations that essentially — and unfairly — excoriated some members of the university faculty and administration (myself included),” Fagan wrote.

  • On Nov. 1, the editors claim, the university told the newspaper's printer not to print further issues unless GSU administrators had approved them. The printer, Charles Richards, confirmed in a letter to the editors' attorneys that Patricia Carter, dean of student affairs, had laid down this rule.

Carter did not respond to calls for comment.

The student journalists sought the Illinois College Press Association's advice on how to handle their conflict with school administrators in February. ICPA responded in March.

“We believe administrators have acted inappropriately, and probably illegally, with blatant disregard for the students' First Amendment rights,” wrote Jim Killam, ICPA president, in a letter addressed to Hosty, Porche, and several school administrators.

“We all agree that the university is out of line,” Killam said. “Courts consistently have affirmed the First Amendment rights of student journalists at public colleges and universities. A keystone in these rights is freedom from prior review.”

GSU President Stuart Fagan did not return calls for comment.

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