Reed et al vs. Neiheisel et al, federal lawsuit filed

Anthony Viola

Student Michael Williams and English Professor Cheryl Reed today filed a federal First and Fourteenth Amendment lawsuit in Marquette federal court against five members of The North Wind Board of Directors.

The defendants are Steven Neiheisel, vice president of enrollment and student services, Chairperson Aubrey Kall, Troy Morris, Eric Laksonen and Pearl Gaidelis, all of whom voted against the reinstatement of Cheryl Reed as adviser for The North Wind and denied Michael Williams, the sole applicant, the position of editor in chief.

Cheryl Reed, left, and Michael Williams (Photo: Margaret Von Steinen)
Cheryl Reed, left, and Michael Williams (Photo: Margaret Von Steinen)

The lawsuit, Reed et al vs. Neiheisel et al, Case No. 2:15-cv-57, challenges the actions of the five, who are a quorum of the board, as unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, stating their actions were retaliatory and an attempt to silence the press.

“This case is not about money,” Managing Editor Williams said. “We aren’t seeking any [financial] compensation. This is all about principles and rights that have been violated throughout the course of this academic year.”

Reed agreed: “We didn’t want it to get to this point. All year long we have tried to educate the board and the administration about student journalists’ rights under the First Amendment. Filing the suit was a matter of last resort to protect freedom of the press on this campus. We decided since the board and the administration have refused to listen, it was time to let a judge decide.”

The lawsuit also asks for an immediate injunction to prevent the Board from appointing a new faculty advisor and to reconsider Williams’ application for editor in chief without bias against the stories in the North Wind that the board has taken issue with.

The lawsuit states the editors of The North Wind have faced multiple instances of the board and administrators attempting to control the tone and content of the paper.

“Although,” as the lawsuit states, “it is not constitutionally permissible for a government body to dictate the content of a journalistic student publication, Defendants repeatedly have relied on their purported authority over ‘tone’ to overstep their constitutional boundaries.”

The vote of the board on April 3 was a culmination of acts by administrators to silence the paper and infringe on the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of Reed, Williams and the paper, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit provides an extensive narrative chronicling the growing tension between The North Wind with the administration since October 2014 when the paper used Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] to request contracts between Northern Michigan University and Starbucks.

According to the lawsuit, since then, administrators have allegedly intimidated editors to stop pursuing “aggressive” stories, the board has blocked a FOIA request and continuously reproached the editors for the “tone” of the paper. The Chair of the Board of Trustees Rick Popp, also sent out an all-campus email disparaging the paper after a story ran examining the trustees expenditures.

Neiheisel also called private meetings with student board members the week of Jan. 11 prior to a vote for a FOIA request for which he had a vested interest. According to Neiheisel the meetings were to review the rules and the bylaws of the board. However,  Mary Malaske, a student board member, said during her meeting with Neiheisel that he said FOIAs were a waste of time and money. Malaske said Neiheisel never disclosed that his emails were included in the request, the lawsuit claimed.

According the Malaske, during that meeting Neiheisel also criticized Reed for instigating the increase in negative coverage on the university by The North Wind over the last academic year.

The lawsuit states, “Neiheisel used the meeting to criticize Reed’s focus on investigative journalism, saying it was the Board’s job to control the “tone” of the publication and that the newspaper was portraying the University in a negative light, specifically mentioning the inquiry into the Starbucks contract, according to Malaske.”

Since those meetings with Neiheisel the attitude of the student board members changed towards Reed, the lawsuit claims. Before, the student board members “had been cordial and professional,” according to the lawsuit.

The student board members deny any influence from Neiheisel.

“Did an administrator influence our vote? No,” the student defendants said in an email earlier this week. “Each of us made up our own minds. We are independent thinkers. We take issue with how our fellow student board member and the North Wind have characterized us as easily influenced, poorly informed and impressionable.”

The defendants were unable to be reached for further comment.

Reed’s removal was seen as intimidation by the staff of the paper because of her guidance and role as mentor.

“Cheryl Reed has been an asset to myself, and I think I can speak for a lot of the other editors, for them too,” Williams said. “She has taught me the actual power of journalism, she has shown us, she has shown me, the most basic tools of journalism, and because she has defended us tooth and nail, I feel only right doing the same for her.”

Read the official Complaint and Motion for Preliminary Injunction below:

https://www.thenorthwindonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Filed-Complaint.pdf

 

https://www.thenorthwindonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Filed-Motion-for-Preliminary-Injunction.pdf