They wrote in AP style. They tried to present both sides in every article. They secured their own advertising.
But, apparently, they didn’t write for a student newspaper.
That’s one argument officials at Barton County Community College, in Kansas, pursued in defending a costly lawsuit from a part-time journalism instructor, Jennifer Schartz.
On Wednesday, Schartz settled her suit against the college, which paid her $130,000. But the issue of whether a longstanding publication on campus is indeed a First Amendment-protected student newspaper remains.
Schartz sued the college after her contract went unrenewed in April 2004. She argued that the dismissal came as a result of her advising student writers of Interrobang, a publication that has been at the institution since 1969. Investigations conducted by student journalists and published in Interrobang throughout 2004 led to some embarrassing situations for the college, including revelations of academic misconduct involving athletes and coaches. Administrators ultimately asked student editors and Schartz to stop publishing certain items. But Schartz maintained that she had no right to interfere with the First Amendment rights of student journalists.
Mike Dawes, a spokesman for the institution, said he could not comment on Schartz’s dismissal, since it involved a personnel matter.
Allen Glendenning, a lawyer for the college, said that the settlement in no way suggested that the institution was at fault or was liable. Rather, he said that the college’s trustees determined that paying for a prolonged lawsuit wasn’t in the best interest of the community college.
Glendenning also shed some light on Barton County's arguments in the lawsuit that Interrobang is not a student newspaper. Because the publication was written and produced as part of classes taught by the instructor, he said, it amounted to no more than a “class project” -- a project that Schartz could have censored without violating the First Amendment. The publication has long been written as part of journalism courses at the institution, in order to help students learn the craft first-hand.
“This case would have centered on that issue,” said Glendenning. “We believe it’s an important distinction.”
Schartz, while saying that she is satisfied with her settlement agreement, believes that college officials are misguided. She noted that the publication is subscription-based, that college administrators have granted several interviews to reporters, and that students have always held journalistic titles, such as “editor in chief.”
The former instructor said that she’d like to see the paper become independent from the college in the future. “But it’s difficult for a newspaper at a two-year institution to be up and running independently,” she said.
Zach Becker, an editor of Interrobang while Schartz was still with the institution, noted that the publication has won several awards for journalistic excellence and that the paper is a member of two collegiate press associations.
“I think there’s a reason the college settled,” said Becker, “because I don’t think they would have won with their argument.” He’s now a senior at Fort Hays State University and edits a biweekly independent student newspaper there called The Edge.
Mark Goodman, director of the Student Press Law Center, believes that the college’s case was shaky at best. “The argument that the college would have had to make was that there was never any intention of putting students in charge of the publication,” he said. “But why would they have allowed there to be a student editor, if that was the case? Student editors made the content decisions -- it was and is a student newspaper.”
Goodman also said that a $130,000 settlement is not one a college would offer if officials truly believed they had an “open and shut” case. “If we were talking about $20,000, I could maybe see that,” he said.
“We and a lot of other people are paying attention to what’s going on there,” said Goodman. “There is a going to be a scrutiny that wasn’t there before.”
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