Iowaaaahh!

 

Guest post by Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky

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Call it a full court press.


 

Note: This post appeared originally on the Society of Professional Journalists’ Region 3 Blog.

A dozen students in a small Iowa town have sued their whiny college for censoring the campus newspaper and firing their adviser.

But they’re not waiting around for a judge to rule – the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow, and these (mostly) women want to burn rubber.

So they’re starting their own newspaper.

And you can help.

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Meet these pleasant people.


 

Two words you rarely see together are polite journalist, but that describes the entire staff of The Calumet, the student-run newspaper at tiny Muscatine Community College. (Enrollment: under 2,000.)

They’ve never ambush-interviewed anyone, asked leading questions, been passive-aggressive, or stretched the truth to make their stories sexier.

No, they just wrote mostly nice and innocuous stories that still got them in serious trouble. Why? No one knows, but it’s both funny and sad.

Here’s an example from editor Mary Mason (top left)…

A building had 13-15 door handles that weren’t working, and students wondered why. So we wrote a story explaining the handles cost several hundred dollars each to fix, and that they had to be specially ordered. The administration felt the story was negative.

It gets stupider…

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Meet a silly censor.


This is Rick Boyer, MCC’s chairman of the math and science department.

A few months ago, The Calumet listed all the faculty who had won grants – not what you’d call hard-hitting investigative reporting. But Boyer sure took it that way.

The harmless and even boring story (which you can read here) ran with smiling photos of the winners, which the school made readily available.

The next day, Boyer called the newsroom and, according to the students’ lawsuit…

asserted that The Calumet did not have the right to use his photograph and that The Calumet must obtain his consent in the future before using his photograph or a photograph of anyone else on campus. Boyer then hung up.

Perhaps Boyer has a body integrity disorder. Or maybe he’s a fugitive from justice. Either would explain why his LinkedIn and his Facebook profiles have no photos of his face. So I’m running Boyer’s photo here, with the hope he’ll call and yell at me, too. (Mr. Boyer: my Skype handle is michaelkoretzky.)

I don’t know why a math professor needs to approve all the photos in a student newspaper, but that’s not as weird as this…

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Meet a sinister censor.


This is LaDrina Wilson, who was MCC’s “equal employment opportunity and affirmative action officer” last year.

I’m not exactly sure what her job was, but I do know she wasn’t very busy. How else to explain her investigation into The Calumet’s staff?

Wilson went after the students for a hard-hitting story about…who gets named “Student of the Month.”

Seriously.

The Calumet reported on one woman who was named Student of the Month twice in one year. Who chooses? The Student Government adviser – who just happens to be the woman’s uncle.

That adviser filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint against The Calumet’s adviser, James Compton. How that story makes the adviser a discriminating boss is beyond me, but Wilson launched an investigation. MCC even hired a private investigator to interrogate Compton and the students.

“The student journalists felt pressured and intimidated,” the lawsuit says.

Wilson’s investigation eventually concluded the students did nothing wrong by reporting on who gets chosen Student of the Month. Imagine that.

Then Wilson got promoted. She’s now dean of students at another Iowa community college. Which infuriates this guy…

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Meet an angry attorney.


 

This is Frank LoMonte. He runs the Student Press Law Center, which defends high schoolers and college students from hyper-sensitive principals and presidents.

He spent hours investigating MCC. His take…

You can say a lot of bad things about the people who run Muscatine Community College, but one thing you have to give them is: They keep their promises. They promised the editors of The Calumet that if they published a story about how an unhinged MCC administrator threatened the newspaper – for publishing his head-shot photo without his express consent – that the newspaper’s adviser would lose his job. And sure enough, they were good to their word.

LoMonte concludes, “You really can’t get a more open-and-shut First Amendment violation than this one, and yet MCC has decided to waste the taxpayers’ money hiring lawyers to try to defend the indefensible.”

He’s most irate about a nice-guy newspaper adviser losing his job because he stuck up for this students…

compton

Meet the assailed adviser.


This is James Compton. He’s an English professor who advised The Calumet until he was fired – by email from a dean.

“I still have my job there teaching English,” Compton says. He admits to feeling “guilty relief” at no longer working with the student newspaper: “Being questioned by a private eye was never one of my professional goals.”

He’s being replaced with a part-time adjunct professor “who will have no workplace protection,” Compton says. “This breaks a run of full-time teachers as adviser that began when The Calumet started up in 1951.”

Compton is a quiet, laid-back guy who says, “I have no specifics as to what I’ve been guilty of.” His best guess? “I believe anything the students researched and reported – if it wasn’t outright positive – was viewed as an attack on administration and those close to them.”

Still, he saw the students get results. Remember those broken door handles? “They watched maintenance attempt to fix multiple broken door handles in a building the same day another reporter had interviewed the head of maintenance.”

Then there was the urinal…

“Tarsa Weikert saw the head of maintenance replace a broken urinal within hours of her interviewing him. The urinal had been broken for nine months.”

And more importantly, this…

“When there was a report on a parking lot feeling unsafe at night due to darkness, they saw the electric truck appear the day after publication to install new lights.”

Yup, sounds like a rowdy gang of anarchists to me. Now they’re doing this…

While the students wait for their lawsuit to mosey its way through the legal system, they’ve launched their own print newspaper, called The Spotlight.

It debuts next week. Printing the paper will cost around $500, so SPJ Florida and SPJ Region 3 have offered to match any donation up to that amount. That gives The Spotlight enough cash to cover their first two issues, and enough time to sell ads to pay for the issues after that.

Will you donate a dollar or five? Click here…

Unless they’re shy, all donors will be listed on The Spotlight’s website and printed in the dead-tree edition.

Says editor Mary Mason: “Our goal is to get people talking, to start a dialogue.” They already have…

You might be asking yourself, “Why should I give a crap about – and my money to – a dozen courteous reporters in Iowa?”

Frank LoMonte sums it up best…

What we’re seeing at MCC is perhaps the most unsubtle and heavy-handed example of the escalating war on journalism at campuses across America. The message to colleges must be that when you attack a newsroom, you’re kicking a hornet’s nest – you’re not going to be able to control what comes out, and it’s going to sting real bad.

Help us create a buzz, both in and out of Iowa.

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