Ruling affirms Ill. campus free-press act

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

DIXON, Ill. – U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer’s decision in Moore v. Watson gives almost everyone involved in the college newspaper case a reason to celebrate.

Gerian Steven Moore, the faculty adviser terminated by administrators at Chicago State University unhappy with the newspaper’s content, is reveling in Pallmeyer’s order that the university reinstate him.

Supporters of the Illinois College Campus Press Act, who passed the law in 2007 to overturn the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2005 decision in Hosty v. Carter, are applauding Pallmeyer’s confirmation that the act protects the independence of the Illinois college student press.

Even Chicago State University administrators are hailing the decision, calling it a win that requires the university to do no more than it offered in settlement a year ago.

The only losers, it seems, are the students at Chicago State, who since 2009 have been – and remain – without a student newspaper.

By the time Pallmeyer tried the case in April 2011, most of the facts were undisputed. Chicago State hired Moore in 2007, in part to help re-establish Tempo, the university’s student-run newspaper, which had not been published in two years. As Moore saw his role with the paper, he was to advise students on ethics and procedures but refrain from exercising any editorial control.

Soon after the paper began publishing, George Providence II was named its editor. Though a college sophomore, Providence was 48 years old and a former editor of another college newspaper.

Soon after Providence took Tempo’s reins, the paper began publishing articles critical of the university and its administrators. As a result, the university placed Moore under the direct supervision of Patricia Arnold, the school’s executive director of university relations.

Arnold took a hands-on role, criticizing Tempo for poor grammar and spelling, unnecessary personal attacks and creating a negative impression of the university. In October 2008, Arnold recommended that Moore be fired immediately, claiming that he was failing to perform his non-Tempo job duties adequately. The university president accepted Arnold’s recommendation and fired him.

Arnold’s displeasure with Tempo did not end with Moore’s ouster. She remained unhappy with Providence and directed that student reporters wishing to interview faculty members first contact her office. Arnold also exchanged angry correspondence with Providence, both in letters to the editor and in private e-mails.

Providence and the university also battled over Moore’s replacement. Tempo’s first permanent adviser after Moore insisted on reviewing all articles before they were published and ultimately delayed the publication of one issue. Providence published the next two issues without the adviser’s approval, prompting the adviser to resign. The university and Providence then sparred over access to the newspaper offices during times when the student-activities office was locked. Tempo ceased publishing in April 2009, and Providence chose not to return to Chicago State.

Moore and Providence sued Arnold and the university president for violating their First Amendment rights and their rights under the Illinois College Campus Press Act. The act, by designating student-run newspapers on college campuses as public forums, essentially guarantees the independence of the college student press.  Illinois legislators passed the act after the 7th Circuit held in Hosty that university administrators constitutionally could exercise editorial control over their campus newspapers.

In 2010, Pallmeyer ruled that the Act trumped Hosty and that Moore and Providence were entitled to a trial. Pallmeyer conducted that trial in April 2011 and issued her 40-page ruling on March 13, 2012.

Given Arnold’s antagonism toward Moore, Providence and Tempo, Pallmeyer had little difficulty concluding that Arnold’s recommendation that Moore be fired was motivated by her objection to Tempo’s protected speech. Having found this First Amendment violation, Pallmeyer ordered that Chicago State reinstate Moore and purge his personnel file of all negative materials related to the termination.

Providence’s claims, however, proved more difficult for Pallmeyer. While acknowledging that “violations of Providence’s First Amendment rights did not end with Moore’s termination,” Pallmeyer held that she could not grant Providence any of the relief he sought.

For example, Providence requested that Pallmeyer enjoin some of the university’s former administrators from interfering in Tempo’s publication. Pallmeyer, though sympathetic, refused, holding that the administrators were not parties in the case and that, in any event, no evidence had been presented that their conduct was likely to recur.

Providence also asked Pallmeyer to order Chicago State to readmit him and reinstate him as Tempo’s editor. Pallmeyer denied this request, holding that the evidence established that Providence had left the university voluntarily and that he was not in any way precluded from seeking readmission.

Most significantly for the university, Providence asked Pallmeyer to order Chicago State to re-establish Tempo. Pallmeyer refused to do so, finding that the university had not shuttered the newspaper and that it was “more likely that lack of student interest after Providence’s voluntary departure was the reason for Tempo’s lapse; several of Tempo’s final issues contained little or no original content beyond that authored by Providence.”

While Pallmeyer’s refusal to order Chicago State to re-establish Tempo was legally correct, that fact does not relieve the university of its moral obligation at least to try to encourage its students to create a campus newspaper. At a minimum, the administration played a role in Tempo’s demise, and all certainly learned lessons from the prior efforts to resurrect Tempo.

Moreover, given the university’s reaction to Pallmeyer’s decision, it would be more than a little hypocritical for Chicago State to turn a blind eye to the student press.

The university’s news release regarding the decision, for example, is headlined, “Free speech case a winner for Chicago State.”  Calling the case “a controversial 2009 free speech lawsuit,” the university trumpets the facts that Pallmeyer did not award money damages and that the school previously offered to reinstate Moore. “Ultimately,” the release reads, “the judge ordered CSU to do just what officials had offered before going to trial in April 2011.”

“These are all events that occurred under the previous administration,” university general counsel Patrick Cage said in the release. “This is a win for the university.”

Chicago State, of course, can spin the decision any way it likes. A win for the university’s students, however, would include a free and independent campus newspaper.

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