College Media Association censures University of North Alabama following investigation

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Posted: Monday, November 26, 2018 11:14 am | Updated: 12:29 pm, Mon Nov 26, 2018.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Nov. 26, 2018                                                                                                    

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:

Chris Evans, president, College Media Association

collegemediaorg@gmail.com / (212) 297-2195    

College Media Association this week censured the University of North Alabama, a move that signals the association's strongest possible condemnation of a university as being hostile toward the First Amendment.

The association issued the censure after university officials took steps to remove the school's student newspaper adviser shortly after his students published a story that irked university officials, CMA President Chris Evans said.

"If college officials decided to remove the adviser as punishment for something that students published, then that reeks of retaliation for Constitutionally protected student speech," said Evans, whose nonprofit organization includes more than 600 college media advisers as members.

"A public university should never seek to silence the student press," Evans said. "Removing a staff adviser who seeks to champion the student voice is one way to do just that."

CMA issued the censure following a careful investigation by CMA’s First Amendment Advocacy Committee.

The timeline laid out in the committee’s report was troubling, Evans said.

Just one week after the student-run Flor-Ala newspaper published a story critical of the administration, university officials summoned the students and their adviser, Scott Morris, to express concern about the article, according to the report.

One week after that meeting, the report states, Morris learned that he would be losing his job.

"The provost called in the editors and advisers to complain about content, then almost immediately the provost unilaterally eliminated Morris' existing position, without even bothering to consult the communications department or publications board," said Bob Bergland, chairman of the First Amendment Advocacy Committee.

The committee’s report laid out the following timeline in fall 2018:

  • Sept. 6: The Flor-Ala published an article titled “Administration denies public records, in direct violation of attorney general opinion.” The paper had been looking into the resignation of the vice president of student affairs and the banishment of a professor from university property. The journalists met significant resistance from the university.
  • Sept. 13: Just one week after the publication of the article, UNA Provost Ross Alexander met with student editors, adviser Morris and the communications department chairman, Butler Cain. According to attendees, the provost complained that the report had “several inaccuracies.” The provost and chairman described the provost’s demeanor as “concerned.” Morris called it “angry,” and the students characterized it as “frustrated.”
  • Sept. 26: The dean told the adviser that the provost would terminate his non-faculty position and replace it with a tenure-track faculty position requiring a Ph.D. This would result in an effective job termination for Morris, a longtime journalist who does not have a doctorate.

While the FAAC investigator could find no “smoking gun” email in which administrators admitted that they had changed Morris’s job description in order to force him out, administrators could provide absolutely no correspondence, reports or materials indicating they were thinking of changing this position before publication of the Sept. 6 article that students and Morris said instigated the change.

“It is CMA’s firm position that any discussion about changing basic job requirements for such an important position would have produced a significant paper trail, but university administrators could not provide a single such document, despite their stated efforts to do so,” Evans said.

Concerns about free speech at UNA have only increased since Morris learned that he would lose his job.

The Flor-Ala has reported that the university administration “issued a reminder to the UNA faculty and staff Oct. 25 about an in-house media protocol, which suggests faculty and staff do not speak to the media without the administration’s examination of all inquiries beforehand.”

CMA believes that this reminder was intended to limit student press access to university officials, effectively serving as a further limitation on students’ ability to report on the university, Evans said.

CMA’s investigator spoke to dozens of sources at the college and tried to bring all parties to the table to resolve their conflicts, Evans said. However, university administrators refused to enter into serious discussions.

Instead, UNA officials quickly began a national job search in order to replace Morris in his advising job.

Evans said he hopes that University of North Alabama officials might still reconsider their actions in a way that promotes the cause of free speech and journalistic education.

“Our hope is that a public airing of the pertinent facts and our perspective can lead to open dialogue that benefits all parties involved,” Evans said. “Our board requests that UNA administration carry out a formal dialogue among relevant student media stakeholders—including campus administrators, academic department leaders, the current student media adviser and Flor-Ala student leaders—to find a solution to the conflicts.

“When these stakeholders can confidently report that they believe that UNA administrators are not hostile to the spirit of a free student press and are not guilty of carrying out retaliatory measures against the student media adviser for reasons of student-originated content, this censure could be removed.”

The CMA First Amendment Advocacy Program, established in 1998, is designed to help mediate issues that may arise when advisers are punished in the performance of their duties and while following CMA standards.

For more information, please contact Evans at collegemediaorg@gmail.com or (212) 297-2195.

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