After months of filings and legal paperwork, the North Wind case saw the inside of the courtroom for the first time in oral arguments on Monday, June 29. With it came the possibility of a landmark decision.
Plaintiffs’ counsel Paul McAdoo said that the removal of Cheryl Reed was an “indirect but adverse affect” to the first amendment rights of student journalist and managing editor of the North Wind Michael Williams.
While some rulings over 30 years ago side with the defense, recent laws in Kentucky and California and more recent district court rulings have talked about indirect first amendment violations. If a ruling came back in favor of the plaintiffs, it would provide more first amendment protections to not just journalists, but students altogether.
Whether or not the North Wind Board of Directors are considered state actors took the majority of time in the arguments, a weak point for the plaintiffs. Numerous cases across federal court have repeatedly said that students are independent of the schools they attend. Since five of the nine members of the board are students, the defense’s argument is that a state action cannot occur from the board.
Another form of state action would be influence by a state actor. McAdoo spent little to no time arguing this possibility but Judge R. Allen Edgar did question the defense based on the evidence submitted. Defense’s counsel Robert Zielinski argued that there was a “factual dispute” over whether or not NMU Vice President Steven Neiheisel influenced the student members of the board. Neiheisel is considered an irrefutable state actor due to his job at a public university.
Testimony included by student member of the board Mary Malaske said that Neiheisel attempted to influence her decisions at one-on-one meetings but his co-defendants all say that their decisions were independent of Neiheisel’s actions. This conflicting evidence created the dispute and will have to be ruled on by the judge.
McAdoo spent about 45 minutes in his argument on behalf of the plaintiffs. NMU’s legal counsel Kurt McCammon was not present but he and Zielinski are both at the firm Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone in Chicago. The same firm also does work with the Michigan Municipal League and will work with the City of Marquette through that agreement.
Roughly 40 people attended the proceedings, including many members of the AAUP, student supporters of the North Wind, former student government presidents and NMU administrators. Both Reed and Williams were present, but only Neiheisel and student Troy Morris were in attendance for the defense.
Edgar announced that he would have a response “quickly” before adjourning the court. Further action in the case will depend on the ruling.