Newspaper board’s decision seen as retaliation

Anthony Viola

The North Wind Board of Directors may have violated the board’s bylaws when they ousted Asst. Prof. Cheryl Reed as adviser to the student newspaper Friday, April 3, according to board members who are questioning the legality of Friday’s 5-3 vote.

The North Wind bylaws state: “The Journalistic Advisor shall be selected annually by the English faculty and department head from faculty members, with their choice subject to the approval of the North Wind Board of Directors and editorial staff. ”

The section editors of The North Wind were all present at the board meeting, but were not asked their opinion on Reed and whether she should be reappointed to The North Wind. The newspaper’s editors were not allowed to speak during the meeting.

During the board meeting, ASNMU representative and board parliamentarian, Troy Morris handed out a definition of the rules of an executive session and threatened sanctions if any of the board members spoke about the specifics of what was discussed during the executive session. The board then went into executive session and dismissed everyone but voting members of the board.

The agenda for the executive session lists the interview of Michael Williams for editor in chief and “2015 – 2016 appointments.” Reed was unaware that her placement as adviser was up for discussion and a vote until the board entered the session, she said.

“I can’t discuss the specifics of what was said during that executive session,” Reed said, “but it has been clear from the tenor of open meeting discussions that the board has not liked the direction of the newspaper, nor have they liked that I have defended the First Amendment rights and press freedoms of the student journalists at the North Wind. I see this as a direct retaliation for that defense. Their ousting of me and their denial of Michael Williams, the most qualified student for the editor position, are both a direct attempt on their part to control the newspaper and what it covers. That is a form of censorship and a violation of the student journalists’ First Amendment rights.”

When the board exited the executive session they voted 5-3 to not reinstate Reed as adviser for The North Wind. Reed, a voting member of the board, abstained so as not to violate the newly implemented conflict-of-interest policy the board approved before going into executive session. The board also voted 5-4 not to hire Williams as editor. Currently the managing editor at The North Wind, Williams was the only applicant for the job. The board apparently will continue to search for another editor candidate.

Reed, who remains an English faculty member, says she is weighing her legal options. She noted that she didn’t think it was a coincidence that the board’s decision came eight days after the Chair of the Board of Trustees sent an all-campus email disparaging the staff of the newsroom for stories the paper wrote about its Board of Trustees travel expenses.

“Interfering with the editorial decisions and direction of the newsroom is a serious First Amendment violation,” Reed said. “I don’t think the board members who voted to remove me even know that they’ve infringed the First Amendment.”

At least one state, California, explicitly outlaws retaliation—including being “dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred” — against a journalistic adviser for acting to protect a student journalist’s First Amendment rights.

Some students have said they thought the decision was the result of publishing the Southern Blow, an annual April Fools’ edition which satirizes the administration, and came out one day before Friday’s board meeting. The fake paper carried a front-page story that was heavily redacted. It also ran a spoof story of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un presenting NMU President Fritz Erickson with a free speech medal. Several of the stories made reference to the months-long conflict the paper has had with the administration regarding public documents.

Editor in Chief Emma Finkbeiner felt the 5-4 decision of the board not to hire Williams and the 5-3 vote to not renew Reed as the adviser was a continuation of university attacks for the stories the paper has published.

“The actions of the board absolutely feels like retaliation against the current staff and adviser for the way the paper has been reporting this year,” Finkbeiner said. “Many of the board members have no exposure to how the news business works and the standards we uphold. They can’t let go of the fact that The North Wind is not a university press release recycling entity. They are trying to run us all out and build their own version of what they want the paper to be. This is a massive blow to First Amendment rights on NMU’s campus.”

The conflict between The North Wind and the administration started in October 2014 when reporters began investigating contracts between the university and Starbucks. The paper’s investigation revealed the university had signed a secret contract with Starbucks. The university cited the confidentiality clause as reason for not initially complying with the paper’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Subsequently, two reporters, including Finkbeiner, were allegedly intimidated by administrators to discontinue investigative stories. They were told that those types of stories would result in the paper losing funding and inhibit the reporter’s ability to receive letters of recommendation from faculty. An investigation done by the university determined there was not enough evidence to prove the claims.

In December 2014, Finkbeiner submitted a FOIA request for the emails of six administrators. The request was to determine if there was any collusion between top officials to stifle the newspaper’s voice and intimidate the student editors. At first the administration tried to charge the newspaper for the documents. But a flurry of critical stories on social media and a groundswell of support for the newspaper caused the administration to back down. The emails were finally received by the student newspaper, but were heavily redacted. The university cited the “open and frank communication” exemption.

In February 2015, the paper FOIA’d the travel expenses of the university’s Board of Trustees. After an article about the expenses, printed March 19, the Chair of the board sent the entire campus a long email disparaging the newspaper on March 25.

The last time the board interviewed candidates for editor in chief on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, they did not enter an executive session.

During the December meeting, the previous editor in chief, Katie Bultman, was present for the interviews of Finkbeiner and Williams. At the April 3 meeting, the current editor, Emma Finkbeiner, was asked to leave the session because she is not a voting member of the board.

“It makes absolutely no sense for the person currently holding the position to not be involved in the interview for their replacement,” Finkbeiner said. “I also think it makes no sense to discuss the adviser’s job status without the editor. I work most closely with her and would have had a lot of valuable feedback and insight for that discussion. I think the board thinks that Cheryl is directing us to do all of this investigative reporting and that is entirely untrue. We are a student-run newspaper. Cheryl can offer advice but we can turn it down at any time. The way we’ve run the paper this year has been student directed and Cheryl has been there to support us when the administration is unhappy about our stories.”

Aubrey Kall, chairperson of the board, did not respond to an email for comment.