A Student Paper Under Fire

Hutchinson Community College student journalists say they are being squelched. The journalism professor who advises the paper has been suspended.

May 4, 2017
 
Alan Montgomery

A journalism adviser at a Kansas community college has been suspended from his job, and student reporters there believe the administration is targeting them after they published multiple unflattering pieces.

Alan Montgomery, adviser to the Hutchinson Community College student newspaper, The Hutchinson Collegian, said he was informed of his suspension Friday, with his courses being canceled before the semester’s end.

This follows friction between the college’s leadership and student reporters.

Jeffrey Leddy, a student journalist at Hutchinson, wrote an article published Dec. 2 that detailed a conflict between a professor and the college’s online education director. This precipitated an investigation by the college’s faculty union, of which Montgomery is co-president.

Emails from Montgomery are quoted heavily throughout the article. In a phone interview, Montgomery said this issue “never would have seen the light of day” had he not served as a source and provided a firsthand account of the investigation. Leddy called the professor’s experience a “nightmare” in his article.

Montgomery said he turned the investigation into a “case study” for his students, about journalism being used to hold those in power accountable.

In mid-January, after winter break, Leddy and another student reporter were summoned before Brett Bright, the college’s vice president for student services. In a letter, Bright wrote to Leddy that he may have infringed on five pieces of the student code of conduct. The letter did not explain what Leddy may have done to result in these violations, which included an “ethical or a professional code” violation.

Carter File, the college president, declined to talk specifically about meetings with the students. File also refused to discuss Montgomery’s employment status, other than saying he remained a paid professor of the college.

Montgomery, a Hutchinson employee of 17 years, raided his retirement fund and hired a lawyer to represent the students in those meetings, and the college also brought in its general counsel to ask questions.

The administration “terrorized” the student journalists, who were fearful publishing anything further would result in their expulsion, Montgomery said.

File stressed in his interview that “no adverse actions” were ever taken against the student journalists.

“I don’t believe there’s going to be any adverse consequences,” File said.

In April, the paper published another article about a student being removed from the journalism lab. This was a misunderstanding, File said. Under his direction, a vice president asked the student to leave because File believed that the student would be supervising other students during lab time.

Days after the article was published, Leddy asked to be allowed into the lab to retrieve personal belongings. While he was in the lab, he took with him a stack of newspapers -- the issue that contained the article on the student’s removal -- intending to distribute them.

Afterward, he was approached by a security guard, who demanded Leddy hand over the newspapers. Leddy initially refused, citing First Amendment protections, but eventually complied.

Leddy had never communicated he wanted to remove those papers and the administration “wasn’t sure what he was going to do with them,” File said.

File said he was unsure who had given the order to confiscate the papers. Later, the papers were given back to the student government association to dispense.

“There was no attempt to suppress here,” said File -- who pointed out that particular issue had already been sent around campus. “In hindsight we probably should have just let them distribute the papers.”

At first, File said the last issue of the Collegian for the semester would not publish -- he reversed that decision later after student journalists met with him. He said in his interview he did not know the process for how the paper was published and was unsure if the students could have completed it with Montgomery’s courses ended.

The paper is published weekly in a journalism course. Recent articles are not available online. About 20 students were affected by Montgomery’s classes ending early, but they will still receive a grade, File said.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that nothing short of leaking confidential military plans can justify leaders preventing publication of a newspaper.

Should administrators ever have concerns about the quality or accuracy of reporting, they should contact a student editor or, in extreme cases, file a libel suit.

But less frequently do college presidents interject in a free press -- this happens more so at the high school level, LoMonte said. More often, a low-level employee, like an admissions counselor, might sneak papers of the rack in an ill attempt to help the college’s reputation, LoMonte said -- use of a security guard seems “heavy-handed.”

“Ultimately taking the route of such heavy-handedness backfires,” LoMonte said.

Montgomery has filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Kansas attorney general -- he said he wants a federal investigation into the corruption at the college, and said that students have been cheated out of their experience.

“The student newspaper put sunshine on these issues, and they are like vampires spitting and squealing all over the place,” Montgomery said.

File said he is saddened that news articles have characterized this as a conflict between college administrators and students, because he respects the paper and the decisions of its journalists.

“I’m proud of Hutchinson Community College and its paper,” he said.

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