A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

University’s suspension of journalist goes to motive

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 2, 3 or 4

If government institutions punish journalists for reporting facts some regard as unflattering, it discourages coverage, and the public is prohibited from seeing material and making their own decisions on what’s important. But just as “NEWS happens,” reprisals against reporters occur.

On Jan. 22, under the guise of a reprimand for breaking rules, Western Illinois University penalized a journalist for practicing journalism.

Nicholas Stewart, editor-in-chief of the Western Courier, WIU’s student newspaper, was suspended for reporting on a Dec. 12 fracas outside the University Union, where police used pepper spray at close range to disperse onlookers. The suspension seems like retaliation for accurately reporting an unfortunate incident despite the fact that Stewart didn’t provoke the police reaction, much less the brawl.

It was NEWS.

On the advice of his attorney, Stewart declined to be quoted but confirmed the background and timeline reported in Macomb’s daily paper: He photographed the fight and police with his own device, uploaded it from his personal Internet connection to a media brokering service with which he’s made other material available, from news to weather images, and it was used by some media credited to “Nicholas Stewart, Macomb, Illinois” without mentioning WIU or the Courier. Only later did he post the footage to YouTube and label it “Macomb Illinois riot: 12/12/14 pepper spray” and credit himself and the Courier (so his original video wouldn’t scoop his own newspaper, which wouldn’t publish for a month).

I believe him.

Vice President Gary Biller said the suspension had nothing to do with the content of the video.

That’s hard to believe.

Biller told Stewart he “poses a threat to the normal operations of the University” and accuses the undergrad of “committing acts of dishonesty [such as] attempting to represent the University, any recognized student organization, or any official University group without the explicit prior consent of the officials of that group”; “engaging in act of theft or abuse of computer time including … unauthorized financial gain or commercial activity”; and “committing violations of rules and regulations duly established and promulgated by other WIU’s case against Stewart seems flawed.

He used his own equipment. He wasn’t assigned the story or supervised (making him an “independent contractor”). It occurred after the Courier’s last issue of the semester (and staffers are obligated to work “during the publication schedule,” according to the Courier operations manual, meaning he was acting as a freelance journalist); and there’s precedence for such effort (the past practice includes not only his previous work but other Courier contributors who’ve provided photos and stories to other media).

As for his status: Unlike faculty, students aren’t employees. Professors in their research underwritten by schools may discover or create something worth copyrighting or patenting, and schools may have claims on that. But what Stewart did is akin to members of campus theater or band; musicians can perform at bars and actors off campus and be compensated. A few Courier editors receive academic credit and modest stipends (Stewart’s pay works out to less than the minimum wage).

“If you’re just paid on a stipend-type arrangement, then you’re a freelancer/independent contractor,” said Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center outside Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t sound like there was any alternative if the student wanted to get the information published before the end of the year.”

Further, the Courier manual allows outside work, saying it’s “permissible when such work does not conflict with the staff member’s or freelance employee’s obligations to the Western Courier or Western Illinois Magazine,” although it says journalists “should” (not “must”) get prior approval from some unnamed authority.

WIU’s Publications Board (on which I served for years when I taught there) held that even for assignments, the newspaper only had “first rights” to contributions, which are not “work for hire.” That’s why contributors keep their digital files/photo negatives, artwork, notes, etc.

Also, courts have considered conflicting rights of media located on public property such as schools versus government interests, and under “public forum” doctrine have ruled for journalists. In “Dean v. Utica,” a federal judge ruled that a Michigan school’s removal of an accurate article (about a lawsuit against the school) was solely motivated by image control and was unreasonable.

A previous WIU president, Al Goldfarb, in 2006 pledged, “The Courier has my support as a free and independent newspaper.” Has something changed? Freedom of the press should be restored, and this imprudent suspension of a journalist should be rescinded.

Student journalism – whether print, broadcast or online – is part of an education, when students experience and experiment.

Hopefully, this “lesson” won’t deter Stewart from journalism.

Student journalism is journalism, protected by the First Amendment, and serves the public.

UPDATE: Late the afternoon this ran, Western Illinois University reinstated Nick Stewart as editor-in-chief of the Western Courier.

[PICTURED: Nicholas Stewart photo from]

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