Eastern Iowa student journalists file First Amendment suit
Muscatine Community College students say administrators tried to control news
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Muscatine Community College students have filed a federal lawsuit against school administrators, asserting they violated the students’ First Amendment rights by trying to control content of the student newspaper and retaliating against students and faculty connected to the paper.
Twelve MCC students and former students filed the suit May 5 in U.S. District Court’s Southern Iowa District against MCC administrators, including President Bob Allbee, and leaders of the Eastern Iowa Community College District, which includes MCC. The two-year college is publicly funded.
“The whole climate at Muscatine suggests a cluelessness about the First Amendment and the role of student journalism on a college campus,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, based in Washington, D.C.
The college’s bi-weekly student newspaper, the Calumet, ran an article in October 2013 questioning whether there was a conflict of interest in how the Student Senate chose the college’s student of the month. The student chosen in September 2013 was president of the Student Senate and her uncle was faculty adviser.
MCC launched an investigation of the Calumet story, with the district’s Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action officer questioning the reporter, editor and another student writer. Officials determined there was no violation, but placed a discipline letter in the employment file of James Compton, the Calumet’s faculty adviser, the suit said.
Last December, the Calumet ran a story about several grants received by MCC faculty, including math and science department chair Rich Boyer. Boyer, who won a $38,000 grant, declined to comment for the Calumet story, which the reporter noted in the story, the suit states. The Calumet ran a photo of Boyer, along with photos of other grant recipients.
“Boyer called the Calumet to voice his displeasure about the use of the photograph,” the lawsuit states. “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.”
Calumet staff wanted to write about Boyer’s phone call, but MCC Dean Gail Spies told the students in January that doing so could result in the paper being shut down, Compton being removed as adviser or “get us all up into the chancellor’s office, and we’ll have to deal with this,” the suit states.
The Calumet published the story Feb. 6. Five days later, Spies told Compton he would be replaced by a part-time adjunct professor, the suit states. The college changed the course schedule for Fall 2015 so the class for Calumet news writers conflicts with other required classes, the suit states.
The Student Senate, which Boyer now advises, cut the Calumet’s budget for next year below reductions to other student organizations, the suit states. Boyer did not immediately return a message for this article.
Retaliation against journalists, LoMonte said, is seen at college campuses nationwide.
“It is an extremely difficult time to work in college journalism,” he said. “Colleges are so worried about projecting a positive image. A single story can cost them a donation or a recruit.”
Calumet Editor Mary Mason, who will graduate with a journalism degree in August, said she and other students sued the school as a last resort. “We are proud of our degrees from MCC,” the 35-year-old mother of four said. “But it doesn’t sound like an outrageous request to want a full-time teacher.”
Allbee, retiring as MCC president in June, said he could not talk about the pending case, but said the school’s attorney could comment.
“Muscatine Community College and the administration has always will continue to protect the Constitutional rights of students and faculty,” said Mikkie Schiltz, an attorney with Lane & Waterman in Davenport.
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