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Students File Suit After Muscatine C.C. Attempts to Chill Newspaper’s Speech

Journalists at The Calumet, the student newspaper at Muscatine Community College (MCC), claim MCC’s administration attempted to intimidate the paper due to its critical reporting. Now they’re fighting back.

Earlier this week, 12 past and current members of The Calumet filed a complaint against MCC administrators and officials from the Eastern Iowa Community Colleges (EICC) system, of which MCC is a member institution. They are represented by Student Press Law Center volunteer counsel: Bryan Clark of the law firm Vedder Price, and local counsel Glen Downey.

The lawsuit alleges that MCC and EICC permitted “faculty and staff members to intimidate and harass student journalists without repercussions, allowing a faculty member to pursue a baseless EEO [equal employment opportunity] charge based on the content of an article, removing a full-time faculty advisor and replacing him with a part time adjunct, modifying the fall 2015 class schedule to marginalize the journalism program, and various other actions that amount to censorship by intimidation.”

As described in the complaint, The Calumet’s problems began in October 2013, when plaintiff and former student journalist Spencer Ludman published an article about potential conflicts of interest associated with MCC’s Student of the Month award. The award, whose recipient is selected by the Student Senate, was twice awarded to the niece of Student Senate Faculty Adviser John Dabeet.

Dabeet filed an equal employment opportunity (EEO) complaint against Calumet advisor James Compton, claiming the article was retaliatory in nature, despite the fact that the article was solely the product of The Calumet’s student journalists. LaDrina Wilson, MCC’s EEO and Affirmative Action Officer at the time, contacted the paper for more information about the article but refused to give the students any information about the origin or targets of the investigation. Although Compton was cleared of any wrongdoing, Wilson (who has since been become a dean at another EICC system college) requested that a discipline letter be placed in Compton’s file, a decision Compton is still in the process of appealing. The complaint notes:

The message sent by the administration was clear: If The Calumet publishes something that makes a faculty or staff member uncomfortable, the administration will side with the staff member — even if, as in this case, that meant conducting a lengthy investigation into an unfounded EEO complaint against the newspaper advisor and intimidating student journalists by making them part of the investigation.

The Calumet’s difficulties with MCC did not end with this incident. Last December, the paper ran an article featuring a photograph of Rick Boyer, MCC’s math and science department chair and interim dean for the upcoming year. Boyer, evidently displeased with the article and accompanying photograph, called The Calumet’s staff and spoke with editor-in-chief and plaintiff Mary Mason:

During that call, Boyer (a faculty member and future dean at MCC) was angry and abusive toward Mason (a student). He asserted that The Calumet did not have the right to use his photograph and that The Calumet must obtain his consent in the future before using his photograph or a photograph of anyone else on campus. Boyer then hung up on Mason before she could offer any explanation.

The complaint describes Boyer’s angry phone call as a blatant attempt to censor the paper and convince its journalists that they needed Boyer’s permission if they wanted to use his photograph, let alone that of anyone on campus. Compton contacted Deb Sullivan, MCC’s human resources director and equal employment opportunity officer, and asked that she mediate the conflict between Boyer and The Calumet’s staff. Sullivan replied that she had considered “a thorough review of all perspectives and thoughts” but ultimately recommended that the journalists and Compton “move on to a different article.”

The Calumet published an article about Boyer’s demand in February, despite having been warned by MCC dean Gail Spies in a recorded meeting that if the article ran the paper would be shut down, lose its advisor, or earn a “visit” to the chancellor’s office. Spies informed Compton he would be replaced as advisor on February 11, saying Compton was being reassigned to teach more classes, a claim that the complaint argues was simply a pretext for firing Compton for his role in the paper’s controversial reporting.

The students also allege that MCC’s rescheduling of “Beginning Newswriting,” the class which allows students to write for The Calumet for credit, to the same time slot as other important writing electives was an attempt to undermine the paper’s ability to attract new writers.

Lastly, the complaint notes that The Calumet’s funding suffered cuts. The Student Senate had previously ensured that the paper began each year with $10,000 in its account, but this year the newspaper was granted only $5,500 of its original $14,000 request to help support the paper’s growing needs, and its staff was given no reason for the cut, leading them to believe that the paper was being punished for the content of its reporting.

According to the Student Press Law Center’s coverage of the case, the college disagrees with Compton’s and the students’ claims:

Although she said she has not yet had an opportunity to review the complaint in detail, Mikkie Schiltz, the college’s attorney, said college officials have guaranteed and protected the Constitutional rights of their students, faculty and staff, “including the First Amendment rights regarding freedom of speech and of the press.”

“We disagree with many, if not all, of the contentions in the lawsuit and we plan to defend all of their actions,” she said.

The entire complaint is worth reading in full. Check back to The Torch for updates on the lawsuit as they occur.

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