Court Upholds Firing for 'Content'

June 14, 2005

A federal judge has dismissed a journalism professor's lawsuit charging that administrators at Kansas State University fired him as adviser of the Kansas State Collegian because they were unhappy with the student newspaper's content.

The newspaper's adviser, Ron Johnson, had drawn significant support in news media circles and among some critics of political correctness in academe because he was dismissed in May 2004 in the wake of protests on the Kansas State campus over the newspaper's perceived lack of coverage of diversity issues. 

The lawsuit filed by Johnson and two former student editors charged that the two Kansas State administrators who decided not to renew the adviser's contract had violated his, and the editors', constitutional rights. 

But in her ruling in the case this month, U.S. District Court Judge Julie A. Robinson rejected that claim. While Kansas State officials did cite the Collegian's "content" in justifying their decision, Robinson concluded, the review by Todd F. Simon, chairman of the board of Student Publications, Inc., "compared the total bylined items, the number of news stories, the number of feature stories, the percentage of campus stories, the number of sources per story, the number of sports stories, the number of bylined opinion items, and the number of diversity items in six campus newspapers comparable to the Collegian."

"The content analysis performed by Simon," Robinson wrote, "thus had nothing to do with the particular stories appearing in the Collegian. Rather, the analysis reflected that the overall quality of the Collegian was far inferior to comparable campus papers."

Without proof that Johnson was removed because of what stories did or did not appear in the Collegian, the judge said, the students cannot claim that "their First Amendment rights to freedom of the press were implicated." The judge also ruled that Johnson himself had no standing to bring a First Amendment claim against Kansas State because he does not control the content of the student newspaper.

A lawyer for Kansas State, Cheryl Strecker, said the court's ruling "vindicates the university, the administrators and the process." She added: "The university did not take any action to censor the content of the Collegian or to control anyone's freedom of expression."

Johnson, who remains an assistant journalism professor at Kansas State, said he was "disappointed" by the judge's decision, which he said "neglected the chilling effect" that the administration's move against him could have on student journalists at Kansas State and elsewhere. Johnson said that he and the former student editors were reviewing their legal options.

Mike Hiestand, a lawyer and legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center, said in a news release by the center that the ruling sets a dangerous First Amendment precedent.

"We are not aware of -- and the court certainly doesn't cite -- any other case where a judge has ever bought into this concocted distinction between a newspaper's quality and its content," Hiestand said. "This ruling really lowers the First Amendment bar in a way that I think is going to shock -- and absolutely should shock -- a lot of people."

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