If you care at all about freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the First Amendment, you need to pay attention to what is happening at the University of North Alabama, where administrators have cracked down on their student newspaper, The Flor-Ala, and are attempting to essentially fire the newspaper’s adviser.
The College Media Association, one of the nation’s largest student journalism organizations, has censured the University of North Alabama after an investigation by the group’s First Amendment Advocacy Committee found that university officials took steps to remove the newspaper’s adviser shortly after his students published a story that angered university officials.
“A public university should never seek to silence the student press,” Evans said. “Removing a staff adviser who seeks to champion the student voice is one way to do just that,” said CMA President Chris Evans.
The attempts to remove the adviser came just weeks after the newspaper published an article that quoted experts criticizing the university administration for refusing The Flor-Ala’s public records requests.
A week after the story was published, officials summoned the students and the adviser, Scott Morris, to complain about the article, CMA’s report found.
“The provost called in the editors and advisers to complain about content, then almost immediately the provost unilaterally eliminated Morris’ existing position, without even bothering to consult the communications department or publications board,” said Bob Bergland, chairman of the First Amendment Advocacy Committee.
The story, entitled “Administration denies public records, in direct violation of attorney general opinion,” was published on Sept. 6. The story was a routine response to a public records refusal. Newspapers often write stories when public records are denied or when government agencies and universities take too long to respond to a request. The students had been looking into the resignation of their vice president for student affairs and a professor who was banished from university property.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
When the student-journalists began looking into the issues, the administration met them with extreme resistance.
The provost called the student editors and adviser in on Sept. 13, when he complained that the report had inaccuracies. The students and the adviser called the provost’s demeanor “frustrated” and “angry.”
By Sept. 26, the adviser was informed that his non-faculty position would be replaced by a tenure-track faculty position requiring a Ph.D. The longtime journalist-turned-adviser had no doctorate.
The actions taken by administrators appear to be a direct attack on the student newspaper’s First Amendment rights. Administrators could provide the CMA with no correspondence or materials indicating they were thinking of changing the position before the article in question’s publication.
Administrators appear to be retaliating against the student newspaper by removing its adviser.
Since that time, things have gotten worse. The Flor-Ala reported that administrators told UNA faculty and staff that they could not speak to the media without administration’s examination of all inquiries.
That’s a direct assault on the student newspaper’s ability to do their jobs, and it’s a limitation on faculty and staff’s First Amendment rights, too.
Public universities like the University of North Alabama are arms of the government, and they are barred from limiting a student newspaper’s First Amendment rights and from retaliating against the newspaper for utilizing its rights.
The Auburn Plainsman stands with The Flor-Ala and other student media organizations in condemning the University of North Alabama. University officials appear to have a blatant disregard for the First Amendment and more than 60 state and federal court cases that have unanimously forbid almost all censorship and punishment of student-edited publications.
On top of that, courts have been clear that school officials cannot confiscate a publication, withdraw or reduce its funding, withhold student activities fees, prohibit lawful advertising, fire an editor or adviser, stack a student media board, discipline staff members or take any other action that is motivated by an attempt to control or retaliate.
If the University of North Alabama’s actions are allowed to stand, it will have a serious chilling effect on student editors and student media advisers in the state of Alabama.
Student-journalists should not be concerned that their adviser might get fired or otherwise forced out just because they wrote a controversial story.
UNA’s actions are a serious abuse of power and set a dangerous precedent.
Student newspapers, like The Flor-Ala and The Auburn Plainsman, are integral parts of a campus environment. Student-journalists hold administrators, faculty and their peers accountable, and the newspaper gives students a voice in their community. And now more than ever, student newspapers are performing a journalistic function for the greater community beyond the campus lines as more and more local newspapers continue to struggle.
We cannot allow UNA’s reprehensible actions to stand.
If you care at all about free speech and freedom of the press, call your state senator, call your state representative, call the attorney general’s office and call the University of North Alabama. Let them know you stand with The Flor-Ala and their adviser — that you stand with the First Amendment.
If you want to read The Flor-Ala, check out their website at florala.net.
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman