Editor recounts censorship battle

Feb 26th, 2009 | By | Category: Columns, Opinions

Zach Becker
Editor-In-Chief

“If you print this letter, I’m going to sue you personally!” Barton County Community College men’s basketball coach Dave “Soupy” Campbell screamed in my face.

After enduring several minutes of his sue-happy rant, I’d had enough. Never before and never since have I been treated in such an unprofessional and degrading manner.

I stormed out of the office (a very rare behavior for me, given my normal level-headed nature) and declared to him that the letter to the editor was being printed no matter what he said.

At the time, I was a 19-year-old college freshman at that small community college in Kansas.

I was also the new editor-in-chief of Barton’s student newspaper, The Interrobang. Oh little did I know what I was getting into when I agreed to take over as editor.

But anyway, the letter in question, which The Interrobang received from a disgruntled former Barton basketball player by the name of Michel Diboty (who was, in his opinion, unjustly thrown off the team) leveled many attacks and accusations against the coach.

Some of the accusations we were able to confirm (such as a player being arrested and it going unreported), some accusations were attacks on Campbell’s personal character, while other accusations, while factual in nature, we had no way to confirm at the time.

One of those unconfirmed accusations stated that Campbell signed off on papers for a federal work study program when he knew no work had actually been completed by his players. Basically, the players were getting federal money for work they didn’t do.

To tell the truth, at the time I did not really understand how serious that accusation was. Well, now I know why Campbell was so mad.

Case in point: by the time all was said and done, seven former coaches, including Campbell, as well as the former athletic director at Barton were indicted by federal grand juries. The main charge against them: fraudulent use of a federal work-study program. If you’ve ever seen the movie All the President’s Men, there is a famous quote by Deepthroat as he gives Bob Woodward clues to solve the Watergate scandal.

“Follow the money.”

It fits very well in this case as well.

Jayhawk Athletic Conference rules didn’t allow teams to give out full-ride scholarships. Therefore, Barton used federal money (fraudulently) as a substitute for a full-ride scholarship in order to recruit highly-talented players. You see, lot of money flows into the college from rich donors in the athletic booster club, and they pay to see an entertaining, winning team on the floor, at any cost.

In addition to defrauding the federal work study program, many of the coaches used their positions to help athletes receive credit for college courses they hadn’t actually completed.

In short, Barton cheated the rules to keep a highly talented team on the floor.

It worked, too, as they were consistently one of the best junior college teams in the nation.

Of course, once the indictments started coming down, it all blew up in their faces.

A wave of negative publicity built up so strong that Barton even ended up the topic of a major article in Sports Illustrated, appearing as the poster-school of corrupt junior college athletic programs. Besides the indictments and negative publicity, the Jayhawk Conference eventually put all of Barton’s athletic programs on probation from post-season play.

But Diboty’s letter to the paper didn’t directly cause all this uproar.

After reviewing the letter, I decided not to include Diboty’s accusation that Campbell signed off on fraudulent work-study papers, simply because this fact could not be confirmed.

The indictments actually came about as the result of an internal investigation conducted by Barton’s administration, who, after seeing the seriousness of the matter, brought in the feds.

The Interrobang had caught wind of this investigation some time before I took over as editor and had been reporting on it, much to the dislike of the athletic department and the board of trustees (the elected decision-makers of the college), who, unlike the individuals spearheading the investigation in the administration, evidently thought it best to sweep things under the rug rather than fix the problems.

Anyway, when the trustees found out we had Diboty’s letter (and already angry with our previous coverage of the investigation) they shortsightedly decided that the best way to protect their image was to silence the student press on campus.

They couldn’t stop the outside press from covering the scandal, they must have figured, but they could do something about the criticism coming from the college’s own student publication.

Most of the time, when people try to censor the press, they do so discretely. But in a prime example of their arrogance, they put their censorship order in writing.

“The administration has decided that no letters to the editor will be published which are by and large personal attacks against other members of the Barton County Community College family,” Barton’s attorney wrote, informing us the college was responsible for the paper, and that they held authority over editorial decisions, even if we disagreed. It seems they forgot about this little thing called the First Amendment.

You know, the part in the Constitution that declares that the government can’t, among other things, abridge freedom of speech or of the press.

The attorney’s letter, which was actually addressed to our faculty adviser, Jennifer Schartz, arrived on the morning the Diboty letter went to press. It seemed almost ludicrous. Surely it must have been a mistake, we thought. Schartz wrote a letter back, telling them that they were asking her to break the law and she would not do that.

A short time later, I ran into Barton President Veldon Law between classes and he informed me that I had handled Diboty’s letter to the editor very well. He said the administration was pleased with how I edited the letter (eliminating the work-study fraud allegations).

Disaster averted, so I thought. Perhaps the knee-jerk censorship letter was just a fluke after all.

But, apparently, the board of trustees couldn’t leave well-enough alone.

In a move of utterly-brilliant stupidity, they decided at the end of the year not to renew Schartz’s teaching contract. Because she was not a tenured employee, they weren’t required by law, nor saw it fit, to give a reason for her non-renewal. But to anyone with half a brain, it was beyond obvious. And if a person still wasn’t sure of the reason, all one had to do was re-read the letter Barton’s attorney sent her.

You see, the main hurdle the trustees faced in firing Schartz was that she was doing an excellent job in her role as a part-time journalism instructor and newspaper adviser. All of her teaching evaluations were flawless. All of her superiors recommended she be renewed. Even Barton President Law recommended her renewal (although we didn’t find this out until later).

She had turned Barton’s journalism program around in a matter of only three years.

When she was hired, the Interrobang was nothing more than an amateurish paper literally printed on a copy machine. By the time she was fired, the Interrobang had won the title of best-in-the-state by the Kansas Associated Collegiate Press twice, and second-best once. Enrollment in journalism increased dramatically. Advertising revenue for the paper was also on the upswing.

While the decision-making power for the paper was in the hands of the student editors, Schartz worked hand-in-hand with the staff, teaching them what she had learned in her 20-plus years of journalism experience, helping them expand and grow according to their individual talents.

After her termination from the college, I decided it would be prudent of me to leave Barton a year earlier than I had planned and transfer to Fort Hays State University. I didn’t want to be a journalism major at a college that didn’t support the First Amendment. A couple years ago, Schartz’s lawsuit against Barton was finally settled after a legal battle lasting over two years.

While the case made quite a few headlines and increased people’s awareness of collegiate press freedom, I was hoping it would also set a legal precedent, helping to further protect the First Amendment rights of future collegiate journalists.

Unfortunately, by settling out of court, there would be no legal precedent.

Nor did the settlement get Schartz her job back. However, the whole thing did cost Barton, to the amount of $130,000 — which should serve as some deterrent to other colleges who might consider trashing their college’s newspaper adviser haphazardly.

I learned a lot from this censorship battle and it really shaped me as a journalist.

For one, I now have a much greater appreciation of the importance and also the fragility of the First Amendment.

I’ve learned that some people, while they might outwardly say that they support the First Amendment, won’t hesitate to try and deny that right to others if it suits their agenda. You have to take a stand to protect those rights. You must shine the bright lights of public scrutiny at them, forcing the rats to scurry back into the darkness.

I’ve also learned that with great freedom comes great responsibility. The press has the power to make or destroy a person’s reputation. And, as history has shown, it is much easier to destroy than to create. So you have to be very careful in what you do and do not publish. On the other hand, you also can’t be afraid to deal with sensitive topics.

Honesty.

Accuracy.

Integrity.

Fairness.

Public Service.

I learned those ideal journalistic principles by heart during my time at Barton. Those principles also can be found in the masthead of this publication. In fact, I can say almost assuredly that The Underground would not exist without the experiences I gained at Barton.

When our editor-in-chief, Jeremy Clawson, was deployed to Afghanistan midway through my freshman year of college, Schartz selected me as editor-in-chief.

I didn’t have much experience, and am not the most charismatic person, either, but she had faith in me and saw something in me I did not. And I’m thankful she allowed me the opportunity to grow as a person in that role. I would not have had the basic know-how, nor the intestinal fortitude, to start this independent publication without my journalistic “baptism by fire” at Barton.

Was my time as editor at Barton the most pleasant experience ever? Certainly not.

But I learned a lot about myself and life in general, most importantly that sometimes you have to stand up for what you think is right, no matter what other people think or say.

Why am I telling you all this?

I guess it just feels good to put it in writing, for the world to see. Maybe it will give you a better idea where I’m coming from as you read my work and this paper.

Oh, and as far as Coach Campbell’s threat of a lawsuit against me, well, I’m still waiting on that one.

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