Freedom of the Press Under Fire at Butler University

Butler University Dean of Communications Gary Edgerton has fired the adviser of the student newspaper, Loni Smith McKown. Here’s how it happened: On August 19, McKown received an email sent to faculty by Edgerton about potential budget cuts due to lower projected enrollments. She forwarded the email to the editors of the Collegian, as she often did with newsworthy information. After being contacted by students pursuing the story, the Dean sent another email on August 21 asking who had forwarded the email. It was then that McKown noticed the confidentiality statement, apologized to the Dean for failing to see it, and promised she would not make the mistake again. By August 26, Edgerton arranged for a Butler spokesperson, Marc Allan, to take McKown’s place as adviser. On September 2, McKown met with Edgerton to explain what happened and defend herself. On September 4, Edgerton wrote a letter to McKown officially removing her as adviser without any explanation, and McKown received the letter on September 8.

There are five substantial problems with Edgerton’s dismissal of McKown as advisor.

First, the confidentiality grounds for dismissing McKown are illegitimate. According to McKown, “I had no idea the notice was even at the bottom – had never noticed before and remain unsure when he started using it.” Administrators cannot make all of their email confidential (and punish anyone they dislike who forwards it) simply by putting a notice at the bottom of their email signatures. If an email is going to be confidential, there must be clear notice upfront, and a legitimate basis for confidentiality. And even then, confidentiality is a request of the receiver, not a rule enforceable by campus codes unless the revelation would violate the law or the rights of others. Much like “off the record” status, confidentiality must be agreed upon, not unilaterally imposed.

Second, all other grounds for dismissal are illegitimate. It appears that the email controversy may have been a cover for other reasons for removing McKown. The Dean apparently regarded McKown as “too investigative” and her students as “too aggressive,” and sought to stop negative stories about Butler from being published. But the Collegian handbook declares, “The adviser may not be punished or removed based on any content decision made by student editors.”

Third, the procedure for dismissal violates Butler’s policies. According to the Butler Collegian’s handbook, “The adviser is selected by the director of the School of Journalism and in consultation with the current The Collegian leadership and may serve in that capacity indefinitely at the discretion of the director and The Collegian staff.” But the decision to remove McKown was made by the dean of the College of Communication, not the director of the School of Journalism or the student staff.

Fourth, the appointment of a new advisor (who was lined up to take the job before McKown even had an opportunity to defend herself to the dean) violates the Collegian handbook and ethical norms. The Collegian handbook requires that “The adviser is a full-time faculty member in the School of Journalism.” The new advisor, Marc Allan, is a full-time spokesperson for Butler and not a full-time faculty member. This is also an obvious conflict of interest; Allan himself admits this conflict: “’I’m not going to do anything that jeopardizes my job, but I’m not doing to do anything that harms the students.” However, the job of an advisor is to help and encourage students to investigate negative news about the administration, not merely to punt on anything that might get him fired. The selection of a Butler spokesperson as the adviser indicates that the true aim of removing McKown was to make the content of the student newspaper more positive for the administration’s brand management.

Fifth, and worst of all, the Dean commanded McKown, “You are not to advise any Collegian full- or part-time staff member either directly or indirectly….Failure to abide by this directive will lead to additional discipline up to and including termination.” All faculty have the right to give advice to anyone they want, and this ban is especially repressive because McKown still teaches journalism classes to many students who work on the newspaper. Considering that the advisor’s job includes, “Provides general advice and leadership and journalistic training and coaching on an as-needed basis to the editor in chief and Collegian staff,” then teaching anything about journalism to the newspaper staffers could be interpreted as “indirectly” advising them and result in termination. Banning a faculty member from giving advice to students is a direct violation of Butler’s policies protecting academic freedom and free speech.

This threat is so inherent repressive and so completely indefensible that it indicates the true purpose in removing McKown was the attempt to silence freedom of speech on campus.

3 thoughts on “Freedom of the Press Under Fire at Butler University

  1. Excellent post. When I worked at the Indianapolis Star, I served with Loni McKown on the board of the SPJ’s local chapter. She was an outstanding and passionate defender of press freedoms. To see her muzzled like this is outrageous. Butler University deserves to be soundly criticized for this embarrassing decision.

  2. Pingback: What The Butler Collegian Controversy Says About the Struggle for Student Press Freedom in America - The Atlantic

  3. Pingback: Education October 22, 2015: Threatening press freedom at college newspapers, backlash at Butler University | Academic Buzz Network

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