KU newspaper editor fired
Dec. 09, 1997
Freedom of the press is a liberty many journalists hold near and dear. In the state of Kansas, the precedent set by the recent firing of a college newspaper editor has sparked a controversy over free press.
The University Daily Kansan's Editor in Chief, Spencer Duncan, was fired by the newspaper's board of advisers for his use and approval of double entendres, among other things, said replacement editor Lindsey Henry.
One example was the headline "Blow Me," used on a story about the amount of pressure used to sound a whistle in Lawrence, Kan.
"Spencer was not just fired for double entendres," Henry said. "He was fired by the board for a combination of things."
Henry said Duncan's firing did not come as a complete surprise.
"It was a coming event" the board took notice of Spencer's previous editorial decisions," Henry said. "The board justified the firing to avoid a major crisis at the end of the year."
The University Daily Kansan does not receive funding from the University of Kansas, Henry said.
The Kansan's board of advisers, which consists of the associate dean of journalism, acting business manager and a student editor of the Kansan's news staff, fired Duncan on Oct. 24.
John Ginn, a member of the board, said he was not at liberty to comment.
The Kansan's publisher, Tom Eblen, also refrained from comment.
"I can't give [my opinion] to you," Eblen said. "I'm sorry, it's one of those things."
Duncan also was unavailable for comment. Henry said Duncan is a senior in journalism who worked for three and half years at the Kansan before his dismissal.
Yet according to the Student Press Law Center, a student journalism legal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., the Kansan's decision was clearly unconstitutional.
"It's troubling to me, especially since the University of Kansas' journalism program is fairly well-known, that the board, which consists of journalism professors, fired its student editor," said Mike Hiestand, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center.
Hiestand said he believes the Kansan's firing sets a worrisome precedent for collegiate journalism's First Amendment rights.
"If it can happen at KU, it can happen anywhere," Hiestand said. "What [the Kansan board of advisers] did was content-motivated - it's against the law."
To date, the Student Press Law Center has received many calls from journalists about the Kansan decision, but so far no phone call from Duncan. Hiestand said if Duncan's case went to court, the board's decision could be declared unconstitutional.
"There aren't that many recent college court cases like this because the law is so clear," Hiestand said. "The KU folks know - they know this is wrong."
However, MU journalism professor Sandy Davidson said the Kansan's decision is not so clear cut. To determine First Amendment censorship, there must be state action involved, Davidson said.
"You have an editor and a publisher, so you have to look at the chain of command," Davidson said. "We're not looking at a student expelled, we're looking at a student fired."
To determine the ethics of the decision, Davidson said one must decide if the advisory board made a decision that was advisable.
"Is it so close to censorship that it leaves a bad taste lingering?" Davidson said.
Duncan's firing will not change the Kansan, Henry said. But Henry did caution that the board should be less passive in other aspects of their advisory role.
"I think if they are going to swoop down and fire an editor, then they should be in the newsroom a little more," Henry said. "The board should have a mid-semester evaluation to avert something like this again."
As for the fate of the Kansan, Henry plans to run business as usual.
"If the board has issues, and I say this non-threateningly, then they can take it up with me next semester," Henry said.