FROSTBURG, Md., Dec. 14, 2020 — How far will a university administration go to retaliate for bad press? At Frostburg State University, the answer is chilling.
Student reporter Cassie Conklin must have ruffled some administrative feathers for covering criticism of the Maryland university’s COVID-19 response for the student newspaper. After video showed her re-attaching a fallen note to a staff member’s door during a campus protest, she found herself the target of a baseless harassment investigation by the administration, and the newspaper found itself facing university demands to investigate and punish its own reporter.
“The realization that the president of Frostburg State University, a school that I deeply love and respect, chose to personally target and retaliate against me for my journalistic efforts has been overwhelming, confusing, and hurtful,” Conklin said.
Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Student Press Law Center call on FSU President Ronald Nowaczyk to immediately end the investigation into Conklin without punishment and make clear that The Bottom Line, the university’s independent student newspaper, is not required to comply with any administrative directives.
The timing of FSU’s actions against Conklin smells off. On Oct. 21, Conklin covered student protests against a staff member, during which time she took photographs of the staff member’s door. On Oct. 30, Conklin wrote an unrelated story detailing a student’s ordeal after testing positive for coronavirus, alleging that the university did little to help the student despite knowing she lived in campus dorms.
On Friday, Nov. 20, The Baltimore Sun linked to Conklin’s coronavirus story. On Monday, Nov. 23, administrators summoned Conklin’s editor-in-chief and the newspaper’s faculty adviser for a meeting to discuss Conklin allegedly harassing a university staff member an entire month prior.
Administrators accused Conklin of slipping a threatening note under the door of the staff member who was the subject of the student demonstrations and Conklin’s Oct. 21 story. The university said they had video evidence to prove the allegations (the video actually proves Conklin’s innocence), and directed the newspaper to investigate and punish Conklin.
One day later, the vice president for student affairs summoned Conklin to a meeting and said that the president’s office helped initiate the investigation “because of [Conlkin’s] role with the newspaper.” She was told she would be investigated not only as a student, but also as an employee of the newspaper because she received a $75 stipend during the semester.
FSU could not explain why it waited 33 days to initiate the investigation. Moreover, the investigation was actually initiated the next business day after her report on coronavirus in the dorms gained mass media attention. (Meanwhile, FSU was threatening its resident assistants — who spoke to The Bottom Line and to The Washington Post — that they could be subject to an “attitude” adjustment in their employee evaluations if they “bad mouth” the university in public.)
“The fact that the university waited an entire month to act on a complaint calls into question whether the university was concerned by her alleged behavior — or by her growing portfolio of reporting critical of the university,” said FIRE’s Lindsie Rank, author of the letter to FSU. “If FSU was concerned that Conklin actually harassed a staff member, waiting a month likely would violate its obligations to ensure the safety of its students and staff.”
Then, without evidence, the case fell apart
The video — which Conklin was finally allowed to view and share with FIRE on Dec. 10 — doesn’t back up FSU’s version of the facts.
Instead, the tape shows a note fall from the staff member’s door into an empty hallway. Conklin, reporting on a protest against the staff member, picks up the note and re-sticks it to the door moments later. What’s more, the note, which Conklin photographed but did not author, expresses support for the staff member.
On Nov. 30, the university confirmed to Conklin that there was no evidence that she violated FSU’s student code of conduct, and that she will not be punished as a student.
One down, one to go
However, FSU’s administration has given no indication that it abandoned the employee investigation into Conklin, and Nowaczyk has not rescinded his demand that The Bottom Line punish Conklin. FIRE and SPLC’s letter reminds FSU of students’ rights under the First Amendment, the threshold to meet “harassment,” how investigations alone constitute retaliation, and why the university cannot punish Conklin as a student or as an employee.
“I feel tricked,” Conklin said. “FSU touts itself as a place that educates the leaders of tomorrow, those who will go forward equipped with a moral compass and critical thinking skills. However, when I used those talents to hold FSU accountable for their decisions, rather than improving and growing, President Nowaczyk has decided to attack the messenger.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.
Daniel Burnett, Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org