Students Say Their Free Speech Is Under Seige

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     (CN) – Community college administrators repeatedly harassed student journalists, replaced their advisor and cut the campus newspaper’s funding in an attempt to curtail free speech, a lawsuit filed by the students claims.
     In a complaint filed in the Davenport Federal Court, contributors to The Calumet, Muscatine Community College’s student-run newspaper, claim that administrators have waged a deliberate campaign against the paper since 2013.
     The students say the trouble with administrators started in October of that year, after The Calumet published an article questioning the selection process for the school’s “student of the month” award.
     The article claimed that “it had become routine for the Student Senate to award the student of the month award to its own members,” and particularly noted that the niece of the Student Senate’s Faculty Advisor had received the award “twice in 12 months.”
     Soon after, The Calumet became the target of an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) investigation, the complaint says.
     The plaintiffs say that during that investigation, they were pressured to submit to questioning, even though they did not know what was being investigated.
     “The EEO proceeding, the related calls, and the pressure to be interviewed … were a direct result of the content of [the] article, and the student journalists felt pressured and intimidated,” the complaint says.
     The plaintiffs also claim the Student Senate’s Faculty Advisory filed the complaint against the newspaper’s advisor, James Compton, claiming the article was “retaliatory.”
     The investigation ultimately determined there had been no EEO violation, but the Human Resources Director told Compton that “prior restraint/censorship would have resolved this issue,” according to the complaint.
     The students proceed to describe further alleged incidents between student journalists and college faculty.
     For instance, they say, when the newspaper ran a story about grant money the math and science department chair Rick Boyer received, the writer noted that Boyer declined to comment, then ran Boyer’s photo along with other grant recipients. That led to Boyer making an “angry and abusive” phone call to a student journalist.
     They go on to say that after the paper began preparing a story about the incident, the dean of the college to warn Compton that if the article ran, “it probably will … shut down the newspaper.”
     Despite the threat, the students say, they went ahead and published the article, along with Boyer claim that he never gave an interview to the writer of the original piece, and that he objected to the publication of his photo because he was self conscious about a neck injury.
     Plaintiffs say the college then retaliated by replacing Compton as faculty advisor with a part-time adjunct professor, even though The Calumet had “been advised by a full-time faculty member for more than 60 years.”
     The students say they routinely suffered harassment from faculty members, and that when they reported the behavior, “administrators told [them] they should expect these sorts of reactions when they write stories of this nature.”
     The administration also changed the time slot for a news writing class to one already crowded with other classes, and plaintiffs believe this was “designed to minimize the number of students who can participate” and that it “amounts to a constructive restraint on the free speech of students who might otherwise write for ‘The Calumet.'”
     In addition, they claim funding for The Calumet was cut nearly in half, dropping from the usual $10,000 to $5,500 for the year. The students say they believe the sharp cut in the newspaper’s funding “is a direct result of ‘The Calumet’s’ content.”
     “The articles that have been written are pretty innocuous,” plaintiff’s attorney Bryan Clark told Courthouse News. “There is nothing that is being reported on that is not newsworthy, or that is intentionally incendiary. This isn’t a case where the students are engaged in some sort of rumor-mongering, or not telling a whole story. It’s just the fact that they’re telling stories that are upsetting to some people.”
     Alan Campbell, Associate Director for Communications at the Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, and a former journalist himself, also spoke with Courthouse News. “Generally speaking, we very much support the rights of our students and our student newspapers, and that has been a core value of our colleges forever,” he said.
     Campbell declined to comment on the lawsuit specifically because he had not yet seen it. “I can’t say too much more until the process starts playing out.”
     Plaintiffs are suing for free speech violations and retaliation, asking the courts to compel the school to reinstate a full-time faculty advisor and full funding for the newspaper, to refrain from altering the schedule for newspaper classes, and to stop “encouraging efforts by faculty members to threaten, intimidate, harass, and censor student journalists.”