MUSCATINE, Iowa — Muscatine Community College is being sued on accusations of violating free speech.
On Tuesday, a dozen current and former staff members of Muscatine Community College's student newspaper, The Calumet, filed a lawsuit with a complaint against MCC. It alleges the college violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Among those listed as plaintiffs is Mary Mason, The Calumet's editor-in-chief who is set to graduate soon. They are being represented pro bono by Bryan Clark, of Vedder Price PC. in Chicago.
The complaint is filed against the college itself, MCC President Bob Albee, MCC Dean Gail Spies and the board of trustees of Eastern Iowa Community Colleges (of which MCC is a part), among others.
Issues between the paper and the college date back to at least 2013, the complaint maintains, when an article about a potential conflict of interest in the college's Student of the Month selection process written by one of the plaintiffs, Spencer Ludman, sparked the filing of an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint against the paper's adviser Jim Compton by an MCC staff member connected to the article.
The tension and conflict continued recently when a photo of instructor and to-be interim dean Rick Boyer was published in The Calumet with an article about a grant his department received, an article for which Boyer refused to comment. Boyer called The Calumet and, according to Mason who answered the phone, expressed his displeasure with his photo being run without his permission. He then proceeded to tell her, she recounted in a March 26 interview with the Muscatine Journal, that she would need his permission to run his or any other faculty member's photo, before hanging up on her.
An article about the call was then written by Jessica Gomez, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Before that article was published, Mason said, Compton approached Spies about it and was told that running the article would have negative effects on the paper, reported in the complaint as "In a recorded meeting, Spies advocated once again for prior restraint and noted that if the article ran, 'it probably will (a) shut down the newspaper, (b) new adviser for the newspaper, or (c) get us all up into the chancellor's office, and we'll have to deal with this.'"
"The story got published and within a week, we were informed that I was being replaced," Compton said, recounting these events in a March 24 interview with the Journal.
Compton is being replaced with an adjunct instructor, who will only be part time, a move which, Mason reported on Thursday, she and her fellow plaintiffs see as an attempt to indirectly censor the paper. Compton, Mason explained in March, spends 20-30 hours working with students on the newspaper, allowing them to fit their participation into their schedule.
A part-time adviser wouldn't be able to put in that amount of time which would put the quality of the paper and the paper itself in jeopardy, Mason pointed out Thursday.
It's also an unprecedented move for MCC.
"The Calumet has had a full-time adviser since 1951," Compton said, explaining that he'd taken the position a couple years ago, always intending to be a temporary stand-in, so his issue with being replaced was with the part-time status of his replacement only.
The schedule for one of the newspaper classes at MCC has also been changed, to a time which Mason maintains is not conducive to allowing students to participate in it as it is now slotted for the same time as a number of general education courses which students are required to take before graduation.
Spies defended both decisions in an April 14 interview with the Muscatine Journal, saying they were due to outside circumstances and that she didn't think they would have a negative effect on The Calumet's ability to produce a paper.
"I need [Compton] in the English department," Spies explained, saying that Compton was hired to teach English and that he accepted the journalism assignment when needed. She'd found a replacement with "extensive experience in journalism: college newspapers, teaching journalism, writing for newspapers," she said, and had been looking for a replacement since last fall. Spies would not divulge the name of the new, part-time adviser at the time, citing an unsigned contract.
The schedule changes were also made to accommodate the adjunct and Spies explained that there were other opportunities for students to take the general education classes other than the new time in which the newspaper class will take place.
"If I thought that this was gonna hurt [The Calumet], I wouldn't have done it," she said.
However, the complaint maintains that "[t]he administration's true motives in replacing Compton with a part-time adjunct are underscored by the fact that Spies did not follow typical hiring procedures." When contacted Thursday, Spies declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
Mikkie Schiltz, the lawyer representing the defendants in this case, noted that she wouldn't be able to comment extensively, but said, "We disagree with most if not all the contentions made in the lawsuit."
She also mentioned that the college is dedicated to upholding it faculty's, staff's and student's constitutional rights. That dedication is reflected in Eastern Iowa Community Colleges' board policy, which is cited in the complaint and states, "[s]tudents have the right to exercise freedom of speech, including the right of expression in official college publications ... There shall be no prior restraint of material prepared for official college publications."
Mason said on Thursday that she and her fellow plaintiffs aren't asking for much from the defendants in their suit.
"We want a full-time adviser," she said.
It's a request that the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP) has made as well. In late April, the ACP released a call for Compton's reinstatement.
"Our concern is that this is an attempt by administration to enact more editorial control," Laura Widmer, ACP associate director, stated in a press release at studentpressblogs.org. "The basic tenet of journalism is that to provide effective service to a community, a publication must remain independent of those in power. We urge the administration to realize that a vibrant and vigilant Calumet is more beneficial to their campus health than one that merely reprints press releases."
Mason said the lawsuit was a last resort.
"We were not planning to do this," she said, explaining that she and the other plaintiffs felt favorably toward MCC overall. "It's not something we're enjoying."