Criticism and an Offer of Help

A journalism advocacy group condemns Western Oregon University's handling of a student newspaper controversy, and suggests that it provide First Amendment training.

June 18, 2008

Western Oregon University officials, who snooped through the files of a student newspaper in a night-time investigation, could use some training on the First Amendment, according to a journalism advocacy group.

In a letter sent to university officials late last week, the College Media Advisers Board of Directors condemned the university’s response to a student newspaper article published in September. The story revealed that sensitive information about student applicants, including their Social Security numbers and grade point averages, had been left unprotected from public view.

In response to the article, university officials rifled through the newsroom in search of a copy of the computer file containing the sensitive student information. The paper’s adviser also lost her job amid the furor, and a student was disciplined for copying the file and violating university policies designed to protect private information.

The board, which represents student newspaper advisers, denounced the university’s “lack of understanding of basic journalism principles and ethics.” But in detailing its dissatisfaction with the university’s actions, the board also offered help.

“[The board] issues this strong statement of concern for the health of student media at Western Oregon University, and it offers to work with [university] leadership to help create a healthy environment for [the university’s] student media program,” the letter states.

The university has not responded to the letter.

John Minahan, president of Western Oregon, was traveling in Germany Tuesday and could not be reached for comment, according to a spokeswoman.

Ken Rosenauer, president of the College Media Advisers board, said the organization would like to help the university with a number of issues, including possible revisions of the newspaper’s bylaws. Rosenauer said the adviser’s role ought to be more clearly defined, adding that he was particularly concerned about any policy that would require the adviser to have prior review of news stories.

The board’s offer of advice may well fall on deaf ears, because university officials haven’t admitted there was much of a problem. An ad hoc committee, which included the participation of a local newspaper editor, found there had been no violations of students' free speech rights.

While the committee agreed the university’s response had at times been “heavy-handed,” some if its harshest criticism was aimed at Gerry Blakney, the newspaper’s student editor who publicly complained that free speech had been quashed.

“This committee believes that the accusations of First Amendment violations were made recklessly,” the report says. “When the facts are viewed objectively, there is not even minimal evidence to support those accusations.”

But Rosenauer, whose group conducted its own investigation, said the university’s actions had surely undermined free expression.

“When they end up dismissing the adviser and nearly crucifying the editor, if that’s not a chilling [effect on speech], I don’t know what is,” he said.

The board’s statement of concern is one of four such letters it has issued to colleges and universities since its adviser advocacy program was begun in 1998, the Student Press Law Center reported. The board has also censured six programs.

Susan Wickstrom, the newspaper’s former adviser, said Tuesday that she hoped the university would accept the board’s offer of assistance.

“I don’t know what this letter is going to do,” she said. “I wish them all the best. Just as a journalist and an Oregonian, I really do hope they figure things out there and allow the students to have a free press.”

Wickstrom, whose contract with the university was not renewed after her seventh year as an adviser, drew criticism from some for her handling of the controversy. She admittedly held onto a disk that contained private student information, and she says she was not cooperative with officials after she learned they had searched the newsroom.

Curtis Yehnert, who took over as interim adviser of the paper after Wickstrom, is unrestrained in criticism of his predecessor. He says she harbored private student information and “lied about it.”

“Her firing was entirely justified,” said Yehnert, an English professor. “She was a terrible media adviser all the way around."

Wickstrom says she was defending her students. “I will say that I was protecting the students’ rights to gather information,” she said. “Once I heard that they had broken into the newsroom, I will admit I clammed up.”

“I’m telling you that having the newsroom searched in the middle of the night freaked me out,” she added. “It was horrifying to me.”

The university is searching for a new adviser to take over in the fall.

While the university has given no response to the board’s letter, Yehnert dismissed the notion that Western Oregon officials need any further education on free speech rights. He went further, condemning the student reporters for their actions and defending the administration’s response.

“They should never have copied [the sensitive file] in the first place,” he said. “They didn’t need to copy it to do a story.

“Everybody who reports on this reports like this is the big, bad administration.”


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