About News

UNA Student Media Adviser Learns the Price of Standing up for Free Speech Can Be Exorbitant

The censorship of student newspapers has been a source of concern among journalists around the nation during 2019. One Alabama school, the University of North Alabama in Florence, became the focus of the issue of First Amendment rights of student journalists when it forced out its student media adviser following the campus newspaper’s publication of articles that drew the ire of some administrators. Here is the view of what happened at UNA from then-student media adviser Scott Morris, a former editor at the Decatur Daily and the TimesDaily in Florence.

Former UNA student media adviser Scott Morris.

Winning a national award and becoming a poster boy for a campaign against student-press censorship is small consolation for losing my job at the University of North Alabama.

The College Media Association recently presented me with its Noel Ross Strader Memorial Award, the Purple Heart of student media awards. The honor goes to a full-time teacher or student media adviser who upholds the principles of a free press at some risk to personal or professional life.

While I greatly appreciate the award, I would prefer to be using the last five years of my professional life by training students to become journalists and other types of media specialists. Instead, I am unemployed at age 60. I lost my job at UNA in May after I stood up for my students’ rights to report on sexual harassment, possible sexual abuse and other important issues that administrators preferred to keep behind closed doors.

This saga began in summer term 2018 when student editor Harley Duncan of The Flor-Ala student newspaper walked into my office and said university police had banned a longtime geography professor from campus and the vice president of student affairs had abruptly left his job.

Duncan said university Provost Ross Alexander would not release details about either incident. After Duncan and I talked, he submitted a written request under the Alabama Open Records Act to view the former vice president’s and professor’s personnel files.

Duncan later returned and said university officials denied him access to the records.

On Sept. 6, 2018, The Flor-Ala reported that the university was violating the state Open Records Act by refusing to release public records. A week later, the student editors and I were called into a meeting with Provost Alexander and my department chair, Butler Cain.

The mood in the meeting was strained. Alexander had a copy of the Flor-Ala article. He voiced his displeasure with the story and said providing his emails was an “inconvenience.”

Just six days later, Dean Carmen Burkhalter sent an email to the university’s Department of Human Resources telling the office to put a hold on my upcoming performance evaluation. The next week, Burkhalter called me into her office with devastating news. She said the university — at the direction of Alexander — was rewriting my job description to require a Ph.D.

I have more than 30 years experience as a journalist and educator. I have been a sports editor, city editor, managing editor and executive editor at newspapers. I have won dozens of writing awards, including twice receiving the Carmage Walls prize for commentary, and awards for investigative reporting, public service, humor writing and photography.

My students have received dozens of regional and national awards in recent years. Despite being a small program at a lower-tier university, The Flor-Ala has placed among the top newspapers in Southeast Journalism Conference competition and was named First Place Newspaper overall in 2018 by the American Scholastic Press Association.

My personnel file contains excellent performance reviews and teacher evaluations, but I knew that, without a Ph.D., I was being forced out.

When I met a few days later with Cain, my department chair, he voiced surprise at what had happened. “This is not something I approached people about, didn’t recommend it, didn’t request it and didn’t talk to people about,” Cain said.

When I pressed Cain about how the provost could make such a major decision so quickly without consulting the department chair, his mutual bewilderment was clear.

“This is my first time in higher ed where somebody above me has made a decision that they did not ask me about it before they did it,” he said. “I’m uncomfortable with the way the situation has happened. I’m going to have to deal with it and you’re going to have to deal with it.”

I decided to deal with it by filing a complaint with the College Media Association and the UNA Student Media Board, which governs The Flor-Ala.

I learned that in addition to Alexander’s failure to consult with the department chair, he also didn’t discuss the move with the Student Media Board. When the members learned of my termination, the board met and issued a written statement in support of me and the program I led at UNA.

Meanwhile, the College Media Association First Amendment Advocacy Committee began its investigation. On Nov. 26, 2018, the association released its findings in a national press release:

“College Media Association this week censured the University of North Alabama, a move that signals the association’s strongest possible condemnation of a university as being hostile toward the First Amendment,” the statement reads.

CMA President Chris Evans said if college officials remove an adviser as punishment for something that students published, it “reeks of retaliation for constitutionally protected student speech.”

UNA is now one of just four colleges censured by CMA.

Soon after the press release, other organizations began publicly rebuking UNA. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education named the university one of the 10 worst colleges in the nation for First Amendment violations. The Southeast Journalism Conference sent a letter to UNA President Ken Kitts criticizing the provost’s actions and informing the president that the group would no longer consider UNA as a conference site for the immediate future. The Student Press Law Center sought legal assistance for my students and me but could not find an attorney in Alabama who would represent us pro bono.

The body that accredits the university’s Department of Communications also was informed of the censure. Under the cloud of the censure, the department is about to be evaluated for reaccreditation by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.

Press coverage poured in from dozens of local and national news outlets. Our story was printed or broadcast by a variety of news organizations, from Huntsville TV stations to student newspapers to national publications, including Columbia Journalism Review and Inside Higher Ed.

During this period of intense news coverage, administrators reminded university employees of an unwritten policy to get permission from the public relations department before talking to the press. I gladly ignored the policy, believing it is unconstitutional.

Administrators also launched their damage-control machine, using the public relations department to try to justify my dismissal. President Kitts expressed his support of the First Amendment to the press and faculty. He attacked the College Media Association and questioned its investigation.

I met with chairmen of the Alabama House and Senate education committees about the censure and asked them not to appropriate any additional funding for Kitts’ Project 208 campaign until the censure is removed.

Concurrently, my students and I carried on our missions in a hostile climate. Some of my student editors complained about being verbally harassed by university officials for their news coverage. At one point, I filed a complaint on behalf of a student editor to the university’s Title IX director. But the students kept writing and reporting. The Flor-Ala eventually interviewed young women who said the banned professor had sexually harassed them. A separate case pending in federal court claims the university mishandled accusations of a sexual nature against another former professor.

Months after our case went public, Dean Burkhalter retired. All members of the Student Media Board resigned. The geography professor whose ban from campus started this situation was fired. Two other professors, one tenured, one not, left the university after the Flor-Ala investigated allegations of misconduct against them.

Then my employment ended in May 2019.

Shortly thereafter, because of their courage in reporting, Duncan and The Flor-Ala won the University of Georgia’s Betty Gage Holland Award in College Journalism. The award recognizes campus journalists and their publications for distinguished service to protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses.

Now, six months after my termination, I look back on the tumultuous year and the awards my students and I won. Accolades, awards and other forms of confirmation are nice, but the actions of administrators at the University of North Alabama have taken an emotional and financial toll on my family and me.

Furthermore, that UNA is getting away with this injustice will have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights of students and the faculty and staff who guide them through the college experience.

Many days as I walk through the campus — I live across the street from it and exercise there almost daily with my wife — I think of how much tax money is poured into the university and how much public oversight is needed to avoid corruption and malfeasance. In my case, the trustees, other administrators, department chairs and tenured faculty did not hold university officials accountable. These groups should have stood up when administrators moved to intimidate the students journalists who believed no public officials are above the law and students should have knowledge of potential threats to their safety.

In order to hold these administrators accountable, stronger protections for student journalists and the advisers who teach them their craft is needed, protection like that advocated by the Student Press Law Center’s New Voices movement.

At a student media conference in New York, Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the SPLC, called me the poster boy for the movement’s efforts to pass state laws that protect the rights of high school and college journalists and their media advisers. Fourteen states have passed New Voices acts. There is a fledgling effort under way to convince legislators of the need to do so here in Alabama.

As an individual, I have done what I can do, though I’ll pose for that poster anytime the photographer is ready. But collectively, we can continue acting in ways to safeguard the press, and in doing so, safeguard our students and the communities surrounding our campuses.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.