HUTCHINSON, Kan. (CN) – With less than two weeks left in the semester, journalism students at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas discovered Monday their adviser had been suspended, four classes were immediately canceled and the student newspaper was ordered to dump its last edition of the school year.
Alan Montgomery, journalism instructor and adviser for The Hutchinson Collegian, was suspended Friday by the college. His suspension came after the newspaper published stories in December that criticized the administration, according to The Wichita Eagle.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Montgomery told The Eagle. “I’ve been involved in journalism for 40 years. I’m wondering if a college president has ever just locked access to their school’s newspaper.”
School authorities confiscated hundreds of copies of the April 28 edition before eventually allowing distribution on campus by members of the student government. Loribeth Reynolds, editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, told The Hutchinson News that she and another student were about to distribute the papers when they were halted by a security guard who told them he was ordered to confiscate.
College president Carter File said he would not comment on Montgomery’s suspension, citing it as a personnel issue.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, views the situation differently. LoMonte’s nonprofit organization provides legal advice and information to high school and college journalists in matters involving the rights of a free press.
“It’s fine for the administration to be upset about an article,” LoMonte said. “But you can’t stop production of a newspaper because of it, and you certainly can’t confiscate the newspapers.”
As a public college, HCC is subject to Kansas state law that forbids college administrators from interfering in content choices made by student journalists. LoMonte said the actions of college administrators have put them on shaky legal ground.
“They’re gift-wrapping a First Amendment claim,” LoMonte said. “A student journalist’s ability to publish content is not dependent on having someone up above signing off on it. The issue of approving the content before allowing the papers to be distributed is prior restraint and is not constitutional.”
File said the school did not try to halt distribution of the newspapers.
“Those accusations don’t ring true,” File told The Wichita Eagle. “We absolutely respect the students’ First Amendment rights.”
File said students in the canceled courses will be given grades based on their completed coursework.