FIRE and Student Press Law Center Address Threats to Freedom of the Press at Los Angeles City College

By on January 18, 2010

FIRE and the Student Press Law Center have written to Mona Field, President of the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) Board of Trustees, regarding threats to freedom of the press at Los Angeles City College (LACC, one of the colleges in the district) against student newspaper the Collegian and its student journalists.

Here is one of the more interesting items in our letter:

In April 2009, according to a May 13 article in the Collegian, student journalist Mars Melnicoff was working on a story about alleged academic fraud in LACC’s basketball program. According to the article, basketball Head Coach Mack Cleveland told Melnicoff, “How long have you been at LACC? If you want to stay here, I highly recommend that you drop this story.” This statement was a threat regarding Melnicoff’s enrollment.

Another incident also reveals the state of freedom of the press at LACC:

On or about September 9, 2009, Daniel Marlos, Chair of LACC’s Media Arts/Photography/Journalism Department, and Dean of Academic Affairs Allison Jones signed a “contract request form” for the Collegian‘s “printing services” budget in the amount of $25,000. A copy of the document shows the amount with a line drawn through it and a 40 percent reduction to $15,000, initialed “J.M.” (presumably by [LACC President Jamillah] Moore). After an outcry from Collegian staff and public attention, the cut was declared a “mistake” by Interim Vice President of Academic Affairs Kimberly Perry and was reduced to 16 percent.

After the news of the 40 percent cut came out, on September 29 Marlos was notified that a “counseling memo” was being placed in his employment file–without any prior notice or any hearing on the false presumption that he had released the budget document to the Collegian. The document is clearly a public record and its release by anyone was legally proper, yet the memo warned Marlos that he could be disciplined for “giving documents to people who are not involved in the decision making business of the college or district.” The memo was rescinded only after Marlos denied releasing the document.

This is not allsee the letter for more. Also see SPLC’s press release on the letter.

Torch readers might recognize the LACCD acronym. Just last week, FIRE filed a friend-of-the-court (amicus) brief urging the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to uphold a July 2009 decision by a federal district court finding LACCD’s speech code unconstitutional. LACCD’s code prohibits, among other things, “generalized sexist statements” and “actions and behavior that convey insulting, intrusive or degrading attitudes/comments about women or men.” Here’s our press release on the amicus.

In addition, yes, LACC is the school where a professor violated the First Amendment rights of a student in his class in the notorious “Ask God what your grade is” case.

The letter from SPLC and FIRE concludes:

We echo Senator Leland Yee’s call for Dr. Moore to comply with state law, and we call on the LACCD Board of Trustees to act proactively to improve the climate for student journalists at LACC. The Collegian must remain editorially independent. With the school’s accreditation already in jeopardy, this is a perilous time for LACC to take its moral and legal obligations lightly.

It is a perilous time for LACC indeed. We look forward to President Field’s response and will keep Torch readers apprised of the First Amendment situation in the district.