Kansas State journalism adviser’s firing upheld

Friday, July 8, 2005

Firing the adviser to Kansas State University’s student newspaper on the basis of a “content analysis” of the newspaper and unspecified personnel issues did not violate the adviser’s or the students’ First Amendment rights to free speech, a federal district judge ruled on June 2.

Now, a month after Judge Julie A. Robinson dismissed the case, the two student-journalist plaintiffs have decided to appeal, and Kansas State has chosen a new adviser.

Katie Lane and Sarah Rice, both of whom were editors at the Kansas State Collegian under beleaguered former adviser Ron Johnson, announced on July 6 that they would appeal their case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, a decision Johnson said he fully supported. Meanwhile, Kimetris Baltrip, currently a copy editor at The New York Times, will take over Johnson’s position as adviser.

Johnson’s troubles began in February 2004 when the Collegian failed to cover the Big 12 Conference on Black Student Government, which was held on Kansas State’s campus. The Collegian editors wrote an editorial apologizing for their oversight, acknowledging they had made a mistake and saying they would try to remedy the situation.

On April 7, though, protesters from the Black Student Union marched in bright orange shirts reading “W.W.R.G.?” (When Will Ron Go?) and delivered letters to Provost James Coffman and Dean of Arts and Sciences Stephen White demanding the removal of Johnson as Collegian adviser.

By May 10 Johnson had been fired as Collegian adviser and as director of Student Publications, Inc. He kept his job teaching journalism.

The decision to fire Johnson as adviser came down from White, and it was based primarily on the recommendation of Todd Simon, who was director of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism at Kansas State at that time (Simon resigned as director in July 2004, citing a desire to refocus on teaching and research). Simon’s recommendation was based in large part on a “content analysis” he performed, which compared the Collegian with other college newspapers, and on “concerns about [Johnson’s] conduct of relationships with individuals and organizations both on and off campus.”

White would not specify what those conduct-related concerns were, and Simon did not respond to messages from the First Amendment Center Online. Both have previously denied that the decision to fire Johnson was because of diversity-related coverage issues.

In a separate 1998 incident, the Student Publications Inc. board voted to declare Johnson’s position as director vacant because of unspecified personnel concerns. Just over a week later, the board reversed the vote but did not explain why.

In his content analysis, Simon compared the Collegian with six college newspapers in eight categories: number of bylined items, number of news stories, number of feature stories, percentage of campus-related stories, number of sources per story, number of sports stories, number of bylined opinion items and number of diversity items.

Dave Adams, who was adviser to Johnson at Fort Hays State University in Kansas and is now a journalism professor and publisher at Indiana University-Bloomington, expressed concerns about Simon’s content analysis, saying that the categories for comparison were randomly chosen and that Simon compared the print version of the Collegian with the online versions of other newspapers. Most newspapers do not put their wire service articles online, Adams said, so the comparison between print and online was unfair. Adams was directly involved with the case, appearing in court and issuing a statement.

Linda Puntney, interim director of Student Publications Inc. at Kansas State and adviser to the yearbook, called the content analysis “seriously flawed.”

In their case, Lane, Johnson and Rice tried to establish that Johnson was fired because Simon and White did not like the Collegian’s content, but Judge Robinson wrote in her opinion that Simon’s content analysis evaluated the quality of the Collegian, not the specific content. She quoted Simon, who said: “The news product that has been presented by the Collegian in recent years does not represent sound journalistic practice. News content has fallen below standards that are widely recognized in both professional and college newspapers.”

The Collegian won numerous awards under Johnson’s tutelage, including four major national awards during the period Simon examined in his content analysis (fall 2000 to fall 2003).

But Robinson agreed with Simon and White, writing: “The Court cannot conclude that Johnson was not reappointed because of the content of the Collegian. Consequently, the Court concludes that Lane and Rice’s First Amendment rights were not implicated by the non-reappointment of Johnson.”

Although Johnson had no standing to bring a First Amendment claim because he exercised no control over the content of the Collegian, he “may well have a viable claim for breach of his employment contract,” Robinson wrote, referring to a possible violation of a Kansas State Student Publications Inc. policy that requires a vote of the board to fire the director. According to a May 2004 Collegian article, the board unanimously voted to keep Johnson as director, but White fired him anyway. White said contract decisions ultimately rest with him.

In response to numerous letters of support for Johnson from students, faculty and alumni, the university issued a statement in June 2004 promising not to interfere with student journalists’ editorial decisions in any way and to uphold press freedom. The statement was signed by many top administrators, including White and Simon.

The College Media Advisers and the Student Press Law Center, two groups that publicly chastised Kansas State for firing Johnson as adviser, recently turned their ire on Robinson, condemning her dismissal of the case.

“In 20 years of legal practice, this is the most poorly reasoned court decision I’ve ever seen,” SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman said in a press release. “In fact, the reasoning isn’t just poor, it’s nonexistent … . No matter how many times Judge Robinson says ‘content isn’t content,’ her decision does not constitute valid, let alone comprehensible, legal reasoning.”

Johnson, who has served as president of the College Media Advisers and the Kansas Associated Collegiate Press, said he was concerned about the national implications the ruling could have for college media.

“Is this a blank check to let colleges choose the content?” he asked. “We think it is.”

White, a defendant in the case along with Simon, said he was pleased that Robinson dismissed it, saying she “correctly did so.”

“I’ve been at Kansas State for 30 years,” White said, “and I’ve never seen a case where an administrator has tried to control the content of the newspaper.”

For the past year the Collegian’s lack of a full-time adviser has often created problems, staffers said. In lieu of a full-time adviser, the Collegian has used an “adviser-in-residence program” in which a new adviser from the ranks of professional journalists came in every week.

Collegian staffers seemed to agree that it was a good experience to meet and work with professionals, but said the lack of continuity became a major problem. Kristi Hurla, a rising junior print-journalism major who was city/government editor under Johnson during her freshman year, said she would not be on the Collegian staff next fall, mainly because of Johnson’s departure. Hurla said she often felt as if a buffer between the Collegian staff and the administration was missing without an adviser.

A panel including faculty, administrators and three students recently selected (but have not yet announced) the Times’ Baltrip as the new adviser to the Collegian. She will also teach a course on information gathering. Baltrip has taught and advised previously at the University of Akron’s Community and Technical College in Ohio and at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. She has worked at The New York Times since 2003 as a reporter and editor. She said she had always planned to steer her career back toward education because it gave her a sense of fulfillment.

Some students were initially unsettled by what appeared to be her stance on prior review during her first interview.

“The concern was that she seemed to have no problem with prior review,” said Joanna Rubick, a rising junior print-journalism major who was city/government editor last spring and will be a reporter/designer next fall.

In her first interview, said Collegian staffers who were present, Baltrip appeared to say that to do her job effectively she needed to be present during news-budget meetings and production.

But the students misunderstood this statement, Puntney said, noting that Baltrip had been in a very different situation as adviser at Prairie View A&M, trying to build a journalism program and advise students who needed much more hands-on aid. When Baltrip made the statement about being present during news-budget meetings and production she was speaking about what she had done at Prairie View A&M, Puntney said, not about what she planned to do at Kansas State.

Puntney said she invited Baltrip back for a second interview to clarify her position on prior review. Baltrip clarified her views on prior review during this second interview, Collegian staffers said.

“I do not believe in prepublication censorship,” Baltrip said in an e-mail to the First Amendment Center Online. “I plan to advise the students. Advising is a very dynamic responsibility. I plan to allow the students to have complete control over the editorial content of the newspaper and to do what I can to ensure that they produce a newspaper that continues to make them proud and that keeps the rich tradition of the Collegian vibrant.”

Puntney said she, as adviser to the yearbook (Royal Purple), and Baltrip, as adviser to the Collegian, planned to sign a document stating that they would not interfere with editorial independence and would not be present in the newsroom unless invited.

Rice, who was one of three students on the panel that selected Baltrip, said she thought Baltrip understood the students’ concerns, but she was still “apprehensive” about Baltrip’s selection. “The students are not necessarily supportive of the final decision,” Rice said.

Rubick also said she thought Baltrip knew how the students felt. “As students, we’re not going to allow it (prior review),” Rubick said. “I think she understands that.”

Hurla, Rice and Rubick said they were more worried for the students about five years down the line who were not trained by Johnson. Currently, though, there are students who are “still dedicated to making the Collegian what it was, how it was under Ron,” Hurla said.

Despite their concerns, many students saw positives that Baltrip would bring to Kansas State.

“I think she does have a respect for student journalists,” Rice said, “and I think students will learn a lot from her, particularly in the classroom. She is a wonderful person.”

Hurla described Baltrip as “very professional,” and Rubick said she seemed “really nice, like a good person to work with.”

Yet it’s hard for many to imagine a replacement for Johnson.

“In my opinion, there’s no better adviser than Ron Johnson,” Puntney said, “and I hope that he gets to be an adviser again somewhere, if not at Kansas State.”

Rice said she most missed Johnson’s speeches to the Collegian staff.

“He would yell at us and say, ‘This is all fluff,’ or praise us and bring us dinner,” she said. “He would congratulate you in success and help you in failure. It was just nice to know there was someone there who was completely solid.”