Too often, college administrators forget that student newspapers exist to provide real news to the campus community, not just to write stories that portray their college in a good light. For example, the Collegian, the University of Tulsa’s student newspaper, recently faced threats from administrators after it published a critical report of the university’s unfair suspension of a student. Now, a Northern Michigan University (NMU) administrator may be punishing The North Wind, which has alleged that it faced intimidation for its reporting, for its public records requests and investigations regarding NMU’s business contracts.
According to Student Representative and The North Wind Secretary Mary Malaske, NMU Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Steven Neiheisel attempted to influence student members from The North Wind’s Board of Directors to vote against the paper’s plan to submit additional records requests and to remove their advisor, Cheryl Reed, from her position. The North Wind’s Anthony Viola covered the controversy, and he claims that the paper’s Board violated its own bylaws when it fired Reed:
The North Wind bylaws state: “The Journalistic Advisor shall be selected annually by the English faculty and department head from faculty members, with their choice subject to the approval of the North Wind Board of Directors and editorial staff.”
The section editors of The North Wind were all present at the board meeting, but were not asked their opinion on Reed and whether she should be reappointed to The North Wind. The newspaper’s editors were not allowed to speak during the meeting.
During the board meeting, [Associated Students of NMU] representative and board parliamentarian, Troy Morris handed out a definition of the rules of an executive session and threatened sanctions if any of the board members spoke about the specifics of what was discussed during the executive session. The board then went into executive session and dismissed everyone but voting members of the board.
The agenda for the executive session lists the interview of Michael Williams for editor in chief and “2015 – 2016 appointments.” Reed was unaware that her placement as adviser was up for discussion and a vote until the board entered the session, she said.
“I can’t discuss the specifics of what was said during that executive session,” Reed said, “but it has been clear from the tenor of open meeting discussions that the board has not liked the direction of the newspaper, nor have they liked that I have defended the First Amendment rights and press freedoms of the student journalists at the North Wind. I see this as a direct retaliation for that defense. Their ousting of me and their denial of Michael Williams, the most qualified student for the editor position, are both a direct attempt on their part to control the newspaper and what it covers. That is a form of censorship and a violation of the student journalists’ First Amendment rights.”
The Board also surprised The North Wind’s staff when it chose not to hire NMU student Michael Williams as editor-in-chief of the paper, even though he was the only applicant for the job.
Editor in Chief Emma Finkbeiner felt the 5-4 decision of the board not to hire Williams and the 5-3 vote to not renew Reed as the adviser was a continuation of university attacks for the stories the paper has published.
“The actions of the board absolutely feels like retaliation against the current staff and adviser for the way the paper has been reporting this year,” Finkbeiner said. “Many of the board members have no exposure to how the news business works and the standards we uphold. They can’t let go of the fact that The North Wind is not a university press release recycling entity. They are trying to run us all out and build their own version of what they want the paper to be. This is a massive blow to First Amendment rights on NMU’s campus.”
Finkbeiner is right to point out that The North Wind should not be a propaganda tool for NMU’s administration, and the entire campus will suffer if it lacks access to a newspaper free from administrative interference. The Society of Professional Journalists has already taken note of the situation and demanded that NMU reinstate Reed and reconsider Williams for the position of editor-in-chief. NMU’s alleged intimidation is troubling, and FIRE will continue to monitor the controversy.