Nicholas Stewart, a student at Western Illinois University, and editor-in-chief of its student newspaper, the Western Courier, was suspended from his position last week by the administration, and is being brought up on charges of violating the Code of Student Conduct because he recorded video of a riot on campus, and sold that video to news organizations around the country.
There are three major problems with the administration’s actions: 1) it’s a violation of the First Amendment; 2) it’s a violation of state law; and 3) it’s a violation of WIU policies.
Let’s begin with the Constitutional problem: There is little doubt that WIU’s action was retaliation against Stewart for his political speech. If Stewart had sold a story that made WIU look good, does anyone think that the administration would be cracking down on him?
Second, this punishment is illegal. Under the Illinois College Campus Press Act, the university is acting illegally, because under the law, “Collegiate student editors of campus media are responsible for determining the news, opinions, feature content, and advertising content of campus media.”
WIU defends its decision by arguing, “The student newspaper’s current operations continue. The suspension of Mr. Stewart as it pertains to his duties as editor in chief is not related to the censorship of content (or telling the student newspaper and its staff what it can/cannot run) rather alleged judicial and University ethics policy violations as a result of possible unauthorized financial gain by Mr. Stewart.” But the law says that the editors are responsible for determining the content, and if the administration can simply determine who is allowed to be the editor, then it would control the content.
But even if WIU administrators could get away with this dubious evasion of the law, the WIU administration is clearly dictating the content of the newspaper by not just removing Stewart as editor, but by banning him from having any involvement with the newspaper: “you will not perform any work for the Western Courier during the time of suspension.” It means that the student editors of the Western Courier are not allowed to let Stewart do any work for the newspaper. And that means that administration is controlling the content of the newspaper by banning one of its writers, which is illegal.
The suspension of Stewart is also a direct violation of WIU policies, beginning with the interim suspension itself. The “interim suspension” listed in the Code of Student Conduct does not apply to positions in a student organization, and it can only be imposed in extreme circumstances that clearly are not evident here: “In certain circumstances the Vice President for Student Services or a designee may impose a University or residence hall suspension prior to the student judicial hearing. Interim suspension may be imposed only: a) to ensure the safety and well-being of members of the University community or preservation of University property; b) to ensure the student’s own physical or emotional safety and well-being; or c) if the student poses an ongoing threat of disruption of, or interference with, the normal operations of the University.”
This provision poses a severe problem for WIU. The only kinds of suspensions allowed on an interim basis are “University” (which is a removal from the university) or “residence hall” (removal from a dorm), not for student activities alone. Moreover, interim suspensions are only permitted in very extreme cases where “safety and well-being” are endangered or a student “poses an ongoing threat of disruption” with the “normal operations of the University.” Certainly, no one imagines that Stewart posed a threat to anyone, and it’s difficult to imagine how selling video recordings would disrupt the operations of the University. If Stewart’s journalism posed such an immediate threat of disruption, then why did it take more than a month for the administration to even file charges against him?
WIU policies do allow for the Western Courier’s editor to be removed, but not at the whim of the administration. According to the Western Courier Handbook, “The Editor in chief may be replaced for failure to carry out the position’s designated tasks by approval of the Director of Student Publications and the Courier Publications Board.” However, this did not happen.
The WIU Administration has made three specific charges against Stewart for violating the Student Code of Conduct, but none of them are even remotely plausible accusations:
Section 17E, “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.” WIU has not explained this charge, but it is impossible to justify it. Stewart obviously never claimed to represent the university. He never even attempted to represent the Western Courier in the video that led to this charge, but as editor-in-chief he was automatically authorized to represent the newspaper. This charge is entirely bogus.
Section 19G, for acts of theft or abuse of computer time with “unauthorized financial gain or commercial activity.” Even if Stewart had used university equipment and computers to help him get paid for the video, what he did would be no different from a professor being paid by a publisher for a book that was written utilizing campus resources as part of their campus work. Obviously, the clear purpose of this rule is to prohibit individuals from using the university to run a private business. But it doesn’t mean that a student using a campus email address to sell stuff on ebay or to sell a freelance article is engaged in unauthorized financial gain.
Section 23: “Committing violations of rules and regulations duly established and promulgated by other University departments (e.g., University Housing & Dining Services, Parking Services, and the University Library).” The Administration has not specified any violations of rules for any other University departments. The only applicable one would be the Western Courier, and nothing that Stewart did violates the Western Courier’s rules. (In fact, the WIU Administration is the only one violating the Western Courier Handbook, which explicitly requires that the editor-in-chief can only be removed by the Director of Student Publications and the Western Courier Board.)
If someone thinks that Stewart did something wrong or unethical for a journalist, then it is the newspaper itself that must make that judgment, not the Administration. But in fact, Stewart did nothing unethical at all.
Stewart had no obligation to post the video he took of the riot on the Western Courier website. He used his own equipment to take the video, and was not assigned by the newspaper to cover it. The fact that, in addition to selling it to others, he freely gave it to the Western Courier is an act of generosity, not a violation of campus rules.
There is a long tradition, dating back more than a century, of student newspaper editors working as stringers for major commercial papers. No one has ever imagined that working for a student newspaper constituted an exclusive contract to never do work for any other media. In fact, Richard Moreno, the WIU Director of Student Publications, noted, “I’ve always tried to encourage people to freelance and do as much as they could.”
If the WIU administration thinks that having their students work for media around the country is a terrible thing, they are free to convince the Publications Board to pass a rule designed to suppress student work. But they are not free to abuse and manipulate the student discipline system in an attempt to punish a student journalist for publicizing a story that embarrassed the administration.
The charges against Nicholas Stewart are a direct violation of the First Amendment, Illinois law, and WIU policies. The justification for these charges is laughable, and clearly has no basis under any rational understanding of the campus discipline rules. The interim suspension of Stewart is completely indefensible and cannot come close to meeting the high standards required under WIU policies.