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University of Wisconsin–Madison

​Western Illinois University student suspension dropped following First Amendment rights dispute

The publication of footage depicting police using pepper spray on students at a campus protest originally landed a Western Illinois University student in hot water with the university’s administration recently, according to attorneys representing the student.

The administration’s charges against the student, Nicholas Stewart, who was suspended on the grounds of being a threat to normal university operations, were dropped this past month.

Stewart characterized his reporting as necessary and fair, although it placed the university in bad light. He called the dispute both insanity and without precedent.

“We never had an issue with this before,” Stewart said. “Yes, we’d get an email here or there upset with us about reporting on an event, but never to the degree that Western took at the end of January.”

The university argued that Stewart’s status as Editor-in-Chief at The Western Courier, the school’s newspaper, put him under their jurisdiction and supervision.

However, in a letter from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), President Dana Neuts argued that since the incident occurred during a period when The Western Courier was not even printing, Stewart was operating as a freelance journalist in his coverage.

“The First Amendment gives him the right to record a news event with his own equipment and post it or sell it as a freelance journalist,” Neuts wrote. “The university’s policies are unclear regarding freelance work, so Stewart should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

“All Mr. Stewart did in this case was act as a freelance journalist.  His right to do so was fully protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” attorney Gabriel Fuentes said in a press release.

On Feb. 2 following the legal dispute, Western Illinois University reinstated Stewart, waiving the original suspension.

“We have a duty to report what is happening, and we have to inform people what is going on,” Stewart said. “After being reinstated, this whole battle hasn’t affected my feeling toward my original policy. I think now, after the outpouring of support I received, I doubt Western would make reckless decisions like suspending me again in the future.”

Stewart stressed that the role of administration regarding the school newspaper should purely be that of a monitor, not intervening in terms of censorship.

“They should have no say in suspending the staff for our reporting and our opinions. As it is, they have no say in the hiring or firing process,” Stewart said.

In a recent Education Week commentary, however, Frank LoMonte argues that the law falls in favor of the school, not the student journalist, in many instances.

“When schools are challenged over the misuse of censorship authority, they invariably fall back on the same tired rationalization: The law allows it,” LoMonte wrote.

Citing the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier ruling as justification, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school-subsidized outlet’s freedom of the press can be curtailed and limited by the institution, schools do have some power, but often overextend their legal reach, according to LoMonte.

“Schools hold students and teachers to a standard of optimal behavior, not minimally legally compliant behavior,” LoMonte wrote.

The SPJ condemned this standard two years ago, claiming that this practice “impedes … [a student journalist’s instruction] including the right to question authority and investigate performances of governance.”

Stewart, however, is optimistic regarding future disputes in which student journalists and administrations square off.

“I’m glad my case set a precedent not only to Western, but also to other university administrations that might attempt to silence the news by going after the newspaper staff,” Stewart said.

Calls seeking comment from the Western Illinois University officials were not returned.

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