Less than a week before First Amendment Day, a UNC-system school infringed on students’ right to free press.
Administrators at Western Carolina University informed the staff of the school’s student newspaper, The Western Carolinian, Friday afternoon that they would be suspending the newspaper’s publication to investigate plagiarism allegations against some of its reporters.
Students were not given reasons why the investigation, which had already been going on for almost a month, could not continue without shutting down the newspaper, said Justin Caudell, its editor-in-chief.
Although the newspaper was reinstated Wednesday morning after Caudell met with administrators, the university still has not given students a clear reason for suspending the newspaper.
“What happened at Western Carolina is one of the clearest cut First Amendment violations we’ve seen at a public university,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which provides legal assistance to student journalists about their rights.
“Actually shutting down the paper down is extremely rare,” LoMonte said. “Most schools have figured out that wasn’t a permissible option.”
Universities can suspend the newspaper only when it is expected to cause substantial disruption to the schools’ operations, LoMonte said.
WCU administrators cannot comment on why they decided to take those steps because they are still investigating the plagiarism charges, said Bill Studenc, senior director of news services for the university.
The investigation began when reporters from the local newspaper, The Sylva Herald, sent reporters and university administrators an e-mail, saying their work was being plagiarized by the student journalists.
Lynn Hotaling, an editor for The Sylva Herald who sent the e-mail, said she noticed that two or three of the articles The Western Carolinian published were exact copies of their work.
But Hotaling said she had never thought the student reporters would get suspended from their jobs.
“It’s a little extreme,” she said.
LoMonte said that suspending the newspaper was not the right way to deal with the plagiarism charges.
“The punishment doesn’t fit the crime,” he said. “There’s normally a system in place to remove the person who engages in misconduct.”
A similar case occurred recently at Southwestern College in California, where administrators suspended the college newspaper for two months, LoMonte said.
“It’s strange that after not seeing anything for years, we’ve seen two outbreaks simultaneously,” he said.
The Western Carolinian, which is a bimonthly paper with a staff of 25 reporters, resumed operations Wednesday. But losing two days of work could impact the quality of their next issue, Caudell said.
“I can’t fathom a newspaper being shut down, so I can’t say why it was done,” he said. “A lot of universities are celebrating First Amendment Day and will be bringing this up as instances that are ironic.”
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