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Wayne State College’s Ouster of Newspaper Adviser Raises Free Press Concerns

Just how free is the free press at Nebraska’s Wayne State College?

According to Inside Higher Ed, that’s the question the public college’s students and faculty are asking after administrators removed the longtime faculty adviser to the student newspaper, journalism professor Max McElwain, in June.

The report, which ran Tuesday, describes the controversy over critical coverage at the college’s daily newspaper, The Wayne Stater, leading up to the firing. It’s a scenario we’ve seen too many times here at FIRE: Adviser oversees reporting critical of college. College removes adviser. College denies it retaliated.

Inside Higher Ed has the details on what allegedly happened at Wayne State:

Over the past couple of years, McElwain oversaw the Wayne Stater’s coverage of three campus controversies -- a tuition hike, the firing of a tenured professor and allegations of cronyism in the presidential search process.

Newspaper staffers and free speech advocates expressed concern that McElwain was dismissed because coverage of these controversies cast the administration in a negative light. But the college maintains that freedom of the press was preserved.

Notably, The Wayne Stater recently won the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska’s (AFCON’s) 2016 Intellectual Freedom Award for its reporting this past year under McElwain’s supervision.

As FIRE has pointed out before, firing an adviser in an attempt to indirectly censor a student publication, intimidate newspaper staff, or retaliate for coverage administrators dislike constitutes a serious form of censorship that threatens freedom of the press on campus. At a public college like Wayne State, students and faculty are guaranteed the right to free expression—including a free press—under the First Amendment.

But if McElwain was indeed targeted for his role in critical coverage of campus administrators, he certainly isn’t alone.

Just this past April, we reported on The Torch about alleged retaliation against the faculty adviser of the student paper at Wyoming’s Northwest College. Over the years, similar cases have occurred at East Carolina University, Chicago State University, and Le Moyne College, to name just a few.

If you believe press freedom at your college or university is under threat, check out FIRE’s resources on our Student Press webpage. There, you can find out how to spot the many—sometimes subtle—forms censorship takes, read up on your rights, and take action.

FIRE will be looking into the situation at Wayne State to ensure the freedoms the Constitution guarantees to students and faculty there are upheld.

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