The Press and Morgan State U.

National journalism group censures university for ending employment of student paper adviser, saying she was punished for protecting students' rights to free expression.
July 27, 2009

At Morgan State University, the student newspaper's adviser was respected by the student journalists and went to bat for them in fights with the administration. Now the adviser is out of a job -- and a national journalism group is today censuring the university, saying that it got rid of Denise Brown for doing her job.

College Media Advisers, the national group that represents people like Brown, conducted an investigation of why her employment ended on June 30, gathering documents, interviewing some players in the situation, and offering to mediate a settlement (an offer that the university declined), and then today issuing a report with its censure decision on the university. The report calls Morgan State's policies "legally questionable" and says that they denied student journalists the right of free expression and resulted in the unfair termination of Brown from her position.

Morgan State issued a statement Sunday in which it "takes issue with the use of the term 'firing' " by the College Media Advisers, saying that this is a case where a contract was not renewed. As to why, the university said the following: "The decision not to renew Ms. Brown's contract was based on personnel issues, and not specifically related to her service as 'adviser' to the student newspaper. As is the case with most personnel matters, the university is not at liberty to discuss the issues involved because of privacy considerations. We emphatically deny that the voices of any of our student journalists have been silenced or their independence stifled by the university and look forward to continuing to work with the staff of The Spokesman newspaper."

According to the investigation conducted by College Media Advisers, Brown's termination had everything to do with her work with the students on the staff of The Spokesman, and the newspaper itself has reported that it is aware that some of its articles angered administrators, prompting them to have Brown produce staff members to answer questions.

Based on e-mail messages and other documents the national group studied, it found that the division between Brown and her bosses followed a series of articles (some of them opinion pieces) criticizing the student government and its ties to the administrators who run the student affairs division. Brown was told to produce the authors of the pieces for one-on-one meetings with administrators at which they would be asked questions about the articles, including their sources -- a request for information that College Media Advisers called "questionable." Brown suggested a group meeting instead, telling administrators the students weren't comfortable with individual meetings.

Further, College Media Advisers cited an e-mail sent in response to its inquiries by Rick Perry, vice president for student affairs, which said: "I can say that the decision not to renew the contract was not primarily due to the content or publication of student material. There was much more to it than that.... It is understood that students have broad latitude to publish what they wish. It is preferable that their attributions to others be informed by facts, and that ‘reporters’ at least give the appearance of having attempted to get both sides of the story.”

According to College Media Advisers, the "e-mail indicates that, while the decision to remove Ms. Brown was not 'primarily' because of issues of content, it was at least partly because of issues of content. Moreover, Perry’s commentary about his standards of journalism seems to imply that such standards, as represented by published articles, were in mind when Brown’s contract was not renewed." According to the group, these are not appropriate grounds for removing an adviser.

Further, the group noted that Brown -- who has a journalism background -- is being replaced by someone with a public relations background, and she has already clashed with yearbook staffers by demanding prior approval of pages.

The College Media Advisers censure requests three actions by the university: Brown's reappointment, "governing documents for student media that will allow students to practice journalism without prior review or post-publication challenges by administrators" and "written guidelines for the performance of the adviser’s duties that follow the CMA Code of Ethics, recognized as the national standard for college media advising."

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