While Marquette has been divided over Northern Michigan’s student paper The North Wind, some people are just rolling their eyes and saying “stuff like that doesn’t actually happen here.” But now the responses with federal court are filed and there are interesting arguments on both sides regarding personal freedom, educational rights and equality no matter where the case is held.
We’ve broken up the case so far into four parts to give as equal and fair coverage as possible, using quotes from public documents, interviewing the people involved and providing all of the case filings for the public to read. Today is the first part of the series looking into the who, the what, the why and how this case could turn into a landmark decision.
So what’s at stake?
Northern Michigan University professor Cheryl Reed and student Michael Williams are the plaintiffs. Williams was the only editor in chief candidate at an April 3 meeting of the North Wind Board of Directors. At that meeting, Williams was not hired to the position and Reed was not retained as the journalistic advisor for the paper.
The defendants are Northern Michigan University Vice President of Enrollment and Student Services Steven Neiheisel and student members of the North Wind Board of Directors for the 2014-2015 school year of Aubrey Kall, Troy Morris, Eric Laksonen and Pearl Gaidelis. Kall is the chairperson of the board and Morris the parliamentarian. Laksonen and Gaidelis are no longer on the board, as Laksonen graduated and Gaidelis did not reapply at the end of her term due to scheduling conflicts. Neiheisel is the board’s business adviser, which is automatically appointed to the vice president of enrollment and student services by the paper’s bylaws.
The plaintiffs’ claims are that their first and fourteenth amendment rights were violated by this decision. The first amendment argument is because of what they claim is interference with the student writers at the North Wind and subsequent practicum class that Reed taught and that infringes on their rights of the free press. If found true, it would be considered prior restraint and unconstitutional.
Prior restraint has been used to describe certain first amendment violations since 1931. According to the University of Missouri – Kansas City, prior restraint was first used in the case Near v Minnesota. In that circumstance, the Minnesota state courts ordered a halt on the publication of Jay Near’s paper due to “malicious, scandalous and defamatory” stories. The Supreme Court then overturned that decision saying that the best way to deal with stories of that nature was to apply libel laws after the fact. Libel is the written equivalent of slander.
It also provided the framework for many other free speech cases regarding public officials (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan) or government information leaked to the press (New York Times Co. v. United States, United States v. Progressive).
One form of prior restraint is an educational prior restraint. Both Kentucky and California have laws protecting teachers and advisers from being let go because they encouraged students to exercise first amendment rights. The defense claimed that Reed did not engage in protected free speech. Williams, however, is still a student writer at the paper and if a federal judge rules that his rights were violated by Reed’s absence, this could turn into a landmark case for educational prior restraint.
According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell, the fourteenth amendment gives “equal protection of the laws” which has been used in cases about racial and gender discrimination, reproduction rights, election recounts and racial quotas in education. It works by extending the same rights citizens have under the federal constitution to states and municipalities and that states cannot “make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”.
In this case, the claim is that students and their instructors receive the same and equal protections that other citizens would receive anywhere in the country. Incorporating this amendment into the case means that a state body like Northern Michigan University cannot impede on first amendment rights.
Reed and Williams have introduced large amounts of evidence to the trial in their initial filing and their response, namely over 100 pages of Facebook message screenshots released by the fifth student member of the board Mary Malaske. Those messages include all five students — which represents a quorum of the board — planning how to act at board meetings and how the students would have to side with either Neiheisel or Reed.
Additional evidence includes a letter from attorneys at the Student Press Law Center and Michigan Press Association, the campus-wide email from NMU Board of Trustees Chair Rick Popp regarding an article about trustee spending and over a dozen controversial articles published during the school year by the paper.
Both sides have submitted the North Wind bylaws as evidence that backs up their claims.
The defense has only included two other email chains regarding Reed and what they believe show Reed as bullying other NMU faculty, which totals 23 pages. Evidence from the plaintiffs are almost 200 pages.
The following evidence also references two legal procedures that are important for both sides and therefore important for the public to understand. The first is the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens the ability to request certain types of documents from public agencies like public universities, police forces or public boards and committees. Issues over FOIA’s have been in the news lately locally with the Mike Neiger requests of Marquette city emails, but also throughout Michigan as the state law will changed on July 1. The Detroit Free Press broke down the state law and what will change, which can be read HERE. These laws can vary state to state, but the most recent landmark case regarding FOIA’s or their equivalent was in January when ESPN sued the University of Notre Dame for not releasing campus police records of student athletes.
The other is the Open Meetings Act, where public bodies must have their official meetings available to citizens. These also differ state to state, but all cover aspects of making decisions in a public forum, that information about when and where meetings are to be held available to the public and some states include “official means of communication” to be open as well, like emails, text messages or social media platforms.
Check out tomorrow for the second installment in the series detailing the defense’s response and one of the first opportunities to hear what they think of the events that lead to the case.
Editor’s Note: The board at the North Wind is considered the North Wind Board of Directors. At one point it was referenced as “trustees”. This has been edited to reflect that terminology.