A disturbance last month after a Western Illinois University (WIU) Black Student Association dance was captured on video by student journalist Nicholas Stewart. He was suspended as editor-in-chief of WIU’s Western Courier student newspaper after the school learned that he sold melee footage to news outlets.
“I am taking this action,” WIU student services vice-president Gary Biller wrote to Stewart, “because I believe that your action as editor-in-chief poses a threat to the normal operations of the university. …In our meeting of December 15, 2014, you admitted to receiving personal compensation for a video that was sold with the banner of ‘Western Courier’ displayed. To date I can find no record of compensation to the University or the Western Courier.”
Retired WIU journalism professor Bill Knight is so angry about the suspension that he feels “like spitting nails.” Here’s an email he distributed Friday afternoon:
From: Bill Knight
Date: Fri, Jan 23, 2015 at 2:05 PM
Subject: administrator suspends Western Courier kid for doing journalism
Hi: Below are two links [here and here] to stories this week about a WIU administrator who found a loophole to punish a Courier editor for covering a protest that turned into a melee, which got a little national attention — and he was compensated for his freelance work. …
This incident may not get as much notice, but it’s idiotic. I feel like drafting a note and listing some of our names/gigs to send to WIU’s president and Board president. What do you think?
I feel like spitting nails… Forward to anyone you think might seize up a bit, too.
Knight tells me in an email that “this seems like an overreaction followed by overkill.” He adds:
I think if the news footage Stewart shot would’ve shown sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, the University would not have investigated, much less suspended the student journalist.
The WIU student newspaper manual says freelance work has to be approved beforehand, but it doesn’t say by whom, and since he’s been doing similar video work for some time (as a freelancer, mostly weather-related, and with student broadcasting: News/WIUTV) there’s precedence/past practice.
I asked Biller over the phone this afternoon what Stewart did that made him “a threat to normal operations of the university”; he declined to say. I told the administrator that I suspected the editor was being punished because his entrepreneurship resulted in some bad PR for the school. Biller denied that.
How much was Stewart paid his video footage? I asked Biller.
“I don’t know,” he said. Biller told me he never asked the amount when he met with Stewart.
“You’re getting the school auditor involved in this,” I said, “and you didn’t even ask how much money this involved?”
Biller said it didn’t matter if it was $10 or $10,000, and declined to say more.
I’ve invited Stewart to comment on the university’s actions. He told his newspaper that “at no point did they [the university] actually ask me to give them the money. … they never came back and said, ‘Hey you need to give your money to the university.’ I also never even received all of the money I made off the video.”
Update: The suspended editor-in-chief writes in an email:
“Earlier this morning, Biller clarified the actual codes I allegedly broke in the code of conduct when I asked since they were not written clearly in the letter informing me of my suspension:
Section D.17e, “Committing acts of dishonesty, including but not limited to, the following: attempting to represent the University, any recognized student organization, or any official University group without the explicit prior consent of the officials of that group”.
Section D.19g, “Engaging in act of theft or abuse of computer time, including, but not limited to: unauthorized financial gain or commercial activity”.
Section D.23, “Committing violations of rules and regulations duly established and promulgated by other University departments”.
“The internal auditing department sent me an email requesting we meet on Monday. I have not responded yet as I’m still working with the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) to get legal representation for this meeting.”