GRAND RAPIDS, MI – The editor and the faculty adviser of Northern Michigan University’s student-run newspaper have sued a governing board that allegedly tried to intimidate reporters for reporting stories critical of the university.
Michael Williams, the editor, and Cheryl Reed, the student adviser and assistant professor of English, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District against university vice president Steven Heiheisel and four students, all appointed to the board of “The North Wind.”
The five members of the nine-member board voted to oust Reed “in violation of established Board procedures and as the product of a campaign of intimidation motivated to punish and chill student journalists’ investigative news reporting about the University, including reporting critical of NMU,” attorney Paul McAdoo wrote in the lawsuit.
Reed was recently removed from her position. She helped the newspaper win several awards and earned high praise from the English Department for her “journalistic excellence.” She received “mixed evaluations” from the governing board.
The lawsuit said that a government oversight body’s attempt to seize control of the newspaper violates the First Amendment.
“Consistent with long-standing precedent, the Editor in Chief of The North Wind has final authority for publication content and content decisions resides in the hands of the student editors,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit said the newspaper upset officials with its use of the Freedom of Information Act and stories raising questions about a contract with Starbucks to operate on campus as well as airfare and hotel expenses billed by the NMU Board of Trustees.
The article on travel costs “provoked an angry response from the chair of the Board of Trustees, Rick Popp, who circulated a campus-wide email on March 25, 2015, to holders of Northern Michigan University email accounts (students, faculty and staff) denouncing The North Wind’s reporting,” McAdoo wrote.
“Popp’s email said in part: ‘I am disappointed with the North Wind’s apparent effort to discredit and disrespect some of NMU’s most ardent supporters. I’m further disturbed that this public action is continuing a recent pattern, and the disrespect for some of our most successful and generous alumni and advocates appears to an attempt to demonstrate that the North Wind was digging deeply into a legitimate news story – which is clearly not the case.'”
The five defendants voted Reed out in an April 3 meeting. They also voted against Williams’ candidacy for Editor in Chief.
The board consists of nine voting members, including five students.
Williams has re-applied for the position. If he is not selected, he plans to stay on the newspaper staff.
“However, Williams will be more hesitant to pursue journalistic articles reflecting unfavorably on the University as a result of Reed’s removal, knowing that the Board believes itself to have control over those who express viewpoints critical of the University,” the lawsuit said.
“The climate of fear and intimidation created by Reed’s removal and by the actions of the Board amounts to a restraint on the free speech of students writing for The North Wind and on Reed herself.”
Reed has filed a request for a preliminary injunction to retain her job as journalism adviser.
The university is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit but provided a statement:
“It is unfortunate and disappointing that four Northern students who volunteer their time on the board of The North Wind are among the defendants in a lawsuit challenging the board’s action. This board is independent of the administration and composed primarily of students and non-administrators.
“The university, which has not been named as a defendant in the lawsuit, is convinced that all board members voted according to what they believed to be best for the paper and did not engage in inappropriate conduct or efforts to infringe on press freedom.
“The students who were sued have publicly expressed their commitment to ensuring that The North Wind continue to serve as a platform for news and opinion relevant to the student body.
“They also stated that they voted against the plaintiffs’ appointments only after ‘studying the issues, weighing the options and making our own decisions.’ Because this matter is being litigated, we can offer no further comment at this time on the advice of counsel.”