Last February, reporters on the Ashland University student newspaper set out to cover a town hall on campus. Seven months later, their adviser was dismissed and the administration began seeking increased oversight of the paper, The Collegian. How did the relationship between the student journalists and Ashland administrators fall apart so fast?
According to Ted Daniels, the paper’s adviser at the time, a student editor specifically asked Ashland president Carlos Campo, who is leaving Ashland at the end of this academic year, whether students were allowed at the town hall. He told her the event was intended for faculty and staff but did not explicitly say that students couldn’t attend. The university’s spokesman, Hugh Howard, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that town halls had always been exclusive to faculty and staff; administrators hold separate meetings for students, which faculty and staff are not allowed to attend.
The Collegian didn’t end up running an article about the meeting because nothing newsworthy happened (though the paper had previously published a story about a town hall in which Campo announced the university was experiencing a budget deficit and would require layoffs). But administrators were still unhappy that student journalists attended. Amiel Jarstfer, Ashland’s provost, emailed David McCoy, chair of the Department of Journalism and Digital Media, stating that students—except those specifically invited by the president—were not allowed to attend what he called “faculty-staff town halls.”
Daniels, who shared the email to McCoy with Inside Higher Ed, said he had never before heard the meetings referred to that way.
Jarstfer also wrote that the student journalists should run articles by interviewees to ensure accuracy—a practice that falls outside journalistic norms and something The Collegian had never done.
“Reporters are welcome to contact and interview members of the administration as scheduled with those individuals,” Jarstfer wrote. “It is my ongoing expectation that draft story copy be shared with those AU employees interviewed so that the substance of the interviews are represented accurately.”
The email marked the beginning of a contentious, drawn-out exchange between Ashland administrators and student journalists that culminated in Daniels’s dismissal at the beginning of this semester; he has since been replaced by a local journalist who will serve as the newspaper’s adviser but, at least for now, will not take over journalism classes Daniels taught in addition to his duties as adviser. Officials at the university, located in Ohio, also ordered the paper’s staff to allow administrators to look over each issue before publication, though they later walked back the request to require only the paper’s adviser to review the content.
The conflict has attracted the attention of free speech advocates, including the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which argued in a Sept. 8 letter to Campo that Ashland’s attempted censorship of the newspaper in recent months “deteriorates freedom of the press” on campus.
While Ashland is a private, Christian university and therefore not obligated to uphold the First Amendment, it has adopted the Chicago statement, a commitment to free speech on campus. According to experts, universities can be considered in breach of contract if they purport to support free speech and then stifle students’ speech.
“If they’re voluntarily making those sorts of promises, there have been many instances where courts have said, ‘Even though you’re a private school—you’ve made promises, they’ve paid tuition, you’ve got a contract,’” said Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit that supports student news publications in legal matters.
Going into the fall semester, tensions between the paper and administrators remained high. Katelyn Meeks, The Collegian’s managing editor, had trouble securing a beginning-of-the semester interview with Campo in time for the paper’s first edition of the year, despite having met with him biweekly the previous semester.
In a meeting between Daniels and the college’s dean, Katherine Brown—which took place the same day Daniels received official word that his contract was not being renewed—Daniels recalled that Brown critiqued his “investigative” approach to student journalism.
According to Daniels, the university sent a note to McCoy, the department chair, citing student journalists’ persistence in seeking interviews as a reason his contract was canceled. But Campo and Howard told Inside Higher Ed via email that neither the behavior of student journalists nor any specific articles played a role in Daniels’s nonrenewal.
Campo and Howard declined to provide a reason for ending his contract. The university also has not shared details with FIRE, even though Daniels said he gave Ashland permission to supply the organization with information about his employment history.
As an adjunct professor, Daniels was an at-will employee at Ashland, meaning the university had the right to end his contract for any nondiscriminatory reason. Still, both Daniels and FIRE view his dismissal as concerning.
“Ted Daniels’s understanding is he was let go because of his pedagogy, because of the way he was teaching his students,” said Lindsie Rank, student press counsel for FIRE. “I have heard from other faculty at Ashland: What does this mean for my teaching?”
In addition to dismissing Daniels, Ashland sought increased oversight over the paper. Meeks told Inside Higher Ed that multiple officials, including Campo, said the administration wanted to look over the paper before it was printed, a practice known as prior review. Free press advocates frown upon prior review, given the slippery slope that extends from simply reviewing students’ work to demanding changes in their articles, usually to make the institution look better.
In a response to FIRE’s Sept. 8 letter, Campo confirmed that the university had made this request, stating that it was inspired by “some recent, rather glaring grammatical errors and had nothing to do with content.”
In a subsequent email to Inside Higher Ed, however, the spokesperson said that factual errors had also been a factor in the request.
“There were a series of recent factual and grammatical errors. Two specific examples were a misreported announcement of the head of a new program (thus, readers were unable to contact the correct person) and a misspelling in the headline of a new library cafe that is being constructed,” wrote Howard. “Those examples and other errors led to the suggestion that there needed to be further oversight.”
Regardless of the reason, FIRE replied in a Sept. 18 letter, “There can be no place for prior review at a university committed to free expression. Prior review of independent student journalism and a culture of free speech simply cannot coexist.”
The university later said in both an email to Inside Higher Ed and a letter to FIRE that the newspaper adviser would review the paper. Though preferable to oversight by administrators, prior review by an adviser it is still not an ideal solution, according to FIRE’s Rank.
“If the prior review is being required by the administration and being carried out by someone who is being paid and receiving their marching orders from the administration, it’s still inappropriate and it’s still censorship,” she said.
However, in another email to FIRE, Ashland clarified its position to say the adviser was not necessarily required to approve the paper ahead of publication.
“Nowhere is there a statement about ‘prior’ review. The word ‘before’ does not appear in the statement. The faculty advisor’s role is unchanged from prior semesters; only the personnel has shifted,” wrote Campo.
With Daniels gone, Dillon Carr, a lead reporter for The Ashland Source, a local online news platform, has taken over the role of adviser for The Collegian. Carr said he was first approached about the position about a week before classes started.
Echoing Meeks’s claims, Carr said he was told during a meeting with Brown after he applied for the job that she expected to be allowed to look over the paper before publication.
“I was a little uncomfortable with that. I think my body language conveyed that to her. And I took a little while to even respond to it, because I wanted to talk to the students, too,” Carr said. “I didn’t really respond. I didn’t agree to it. I didn’t disagree.”
He later learned that university officials were no longer insisting on reviewing the paper, but he has not decided yet whether he will review it himself.
“I think what we’re going to do is try to find some way to better edit or copyedit the stories before they go online,” he said. “Whether that’s me, or I have a team of people that can do that and help, that’s kind of what I’m exploring.”
Daniels’s removal is already being felt in The Collegian’s newsroom, where students were looking forward to a year of major changes. According to Daniels, the paper was in the process of switching to an online-first model.
Meeks said that the staff has been demoralized by Daniels’s dismissal.
“My staff is so drained because of all this,” she said. “Every time I look at them, I don’t see the passion they used to have.”
Because Daniels’s contract wasn’t renewed, a class he was slated to teach called Writing for the Media, which had 22 students enrolled, will not be offered this semester. Carr opted not to teach it due to worries about fitting it into his schedule. This, too, will impact the newspaper, as it was the class that freshman reporters took for an introduction to journalism.
The Collegian published a brief editorial by two administrators, Jarstfer and Brown, that addressed the ongoing conflict, stating that they “support” the paper “as a forum for open communication within our campus community.”
The piece concluded with a call for student journalists to ensure their work is factual and fair: “We encourage you to continue your pursuits of knowledge and truth with strategic interviews, research, fact-checking, and editorial balance. The Offices of the Provost and Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Ashland University are committed to the principles of academic freedom and value the resulting dialogue.”
Rank, of FIRE, thinks that the editorial and a Sept. 21 letter from Ashland administrators reaffirming their commitment to free expression, represent “a good first step” in renewing trust with student journalists.
“We’re feeling cautiously optimistic about what is going on at Ashland,” she said. “The students are still kind of like, ‘We’re a little worried; we’re not 100 percent sure what the future holds for press freedom at Ashland,’ so this is just a first step. [But] it’s an important first step.”