Newspaper editors quit over alleged censorship at Lewis University

By Sophia Tareen

CHICAGO – Three editors of a private Catholic college’s newspaper in suburban Chicago have resigned over what they claim are free speech battles with university officials.

But administrators at Lewis University in Romeoville said Tuesday the issues, including prior review of an article about an alleged federal lawsuit against a university trustee, were matters of exercising editorial judgment and their right as publishers of The Flyer, which is financed by the 5,500-student university.

“There’s a particular tension because both parties are unsure of where they stand,” said Roland King, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “The students are trying to do a solid journalistic job in what is a learning lab. The administrators are trying to provide a real world experience, but also have to keep in mind the interests of the institution.”

The newspaper’s editor in chief, opinions editor and senior layout editor quit last week because “their ability to function as journalists was impeded upon by university officials who sought to prevent information from being released,” according to a letter posted on The Flyer’s Web site.

Another issue involved the characterization of a slur in a story about a defaced black history month event flier. Students wanted to spell out the word, but said university administration told them to use a substitute like “n-word.”

Students and administrators also clashed over naming Lewis students who appeared in city police reports. The administration, informed by a student advisory board, decided the newspaper could not name arrested students.

“What we’re doing is good journalism. We’ve always been told, ‘Ask the hard question, do your background research, build source relationships,'” former editor-in-chief, Pete Nickeas, 22, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “We got to a certain point where the university couldn’t handle it. Going into a newspaper, it’s not public relations.”

In the fall, the newspaper shifted its focus to involve more crime stories and investigative reporting, said David Anderson, the newspaper’s adviser and a professor of communications.

That focus included investigating public documents and led to a story, which has not been published, about an alleged U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit against a Lewis board trustee.

In a meeting last week between Nickeas and Angela Durante, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Nickeas brought up the issues and the dean told him she needed prior review on the trustee story.

“Anything involving the university and its members, I should know about it,” said Durante. “I didn’t say they couldn’t print anything. I was asked for my opinion, it never came back to me for additional review.”

She declined to discuss any details of the alleged lawsuit.

Opinions editor Mike Howlett and senior layout editor Erin Devers also resigned.

“They tried to censor us through prior review,” Howlett, 19, said. “That’s wrong and it goes against everything they teach in our journalism program.”

The issues at Lewis are no different than those at any newspaper where there is tension between the editor and publisher, said Kelly McBride, who heads the ethics group at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida.

“With a college that tension is magnified, because it is the primary mission of the newspaper to cover the college over which their publisher presides,” she said.

The pressure increases at a private college, said Gerry Appel, an education specialist at J-Ideas, a Ball State First Amendment institute.

“For private schools, you basically waive your First Amendment rights at the door,” he said. “Legally the administration has the right to do these things, but ethically whether they should is a different question.”

First Amendment advocates said the students are making a statement.

“They’ve been utterly frustrated,” said attorney Mike Heistand with the Student Press Law Center. “This is the one way maybe they can have their voice heard.”

The three vacant positions at The Flyer, which prints roughly 12 times an academic year, will be filled by the end of the week, Anderson said.

Administrators’ insistence on prior review of student publications has been an issue at public schools for two decades.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled limits can be set on the free-press rights of high school students. The case, Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, involved a principal preventing students at a St. Louis-area school from publishing some stories.

That decision was affirmed for public universities in the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals for a handful of states including Illinois. In 2000, students at Governors State in University Park sued after a dean blocked the paper’s printing until she could review stories. The students lost and in 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.