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Update: WIU Student Journalist Responds

Western Illinois University student Nicholas Stewart has written an editorial reponse to the university's treatment of him.  The Western Courier editor was suspended after he shot video of a fight on campus and sold it to a media brokering site.  The video was broadcast on several TV newscasts, including The Today Show.  On Monday, the university lifted the suspension and issued a letter blaming a lack of information and organization from the Publications Board.  You can read Stewart's editorial here:  http://www.westerncourier.com/opinions/western-continues-to-play-the-bla...

You can read more about the case at http://tspr.org/post/update-wiu-draws-criticism-suspending-student
 

Below is the letter the INBA sent last week to WIU President Jack Thomas:

Dr. Thomas:
   The Illinois News Broadcasters Association is alarmed and displeased to learn of the suspension of Nicholas Stewart as editor of the Western Courier in connection with the events of December 12 at Western Illinois University.
 Since its founding in 1955, INBA has had a strong student component, with student chapters at Western and other institutions of higher education in Illinois.  Journalism educators also have been members of the organization from the beginning. INBA provides critiques and mentoring to young journalists as well as guidance.

            INBA has always had a strong commitment to learning by doing – taking what one learns in the classroom and putting it to practical use in the real world to reinforce the classroom experience.  And that is where we come to the case of Nicholas Stewart.

            We were astonished to learn from WGEM-TV that Stewart is being investigated for possible violation of the WIU Student Code of Conduct.  Because we are journalists, we have asked questions of a number of people, and we believe there are several facts that the Publications Board and the University should consider:

  1. The video footage that was sold is in HD format.  The Western Courier uses ancient Flip cameras and does not own such equipment. As a result, University equipment could not have been used to shoot or edit the video. 
  2. The Western Courier had published its last edition of the fall semester prior to December 12.  Its next edition was not due out for more than a month.  It was a time frame in which Stewart should have had every right to work as a freelancer.  A college education, even at a state institution, is not an inexpensive proposition.
  3. The Western Courier “bug” was not utilized on the video.  Instead, Stewart was credited individually.
  4. Stewart has provided video in the past, free of charge, on stories ranging from the weather (he is taking meteorology courses) to automobile accidents without complaint from the University and, indeed, provided the materials from home December 12 after editing on equipment he owns, not the University, on an Internet connection that is his, not the University’s.

These facts lead the board of directors of INBA to the following conclusions:

  1. Stewart used neither University cameras, computer, editing equipment nor Internet connections.  He was not acting in his capacity as Western Courier editor.  Thus, the University should not be entitled to seize any compensation he earned.
  2. This is a situation in which Stewart was acting not as a student journalist, and subject to such limitations that may be imposed upon student journalists, but as a professional covered by First Amendment free speech rights.
  3. We see no violation of the Code.  If anything, the University should be praising Stewart for going beyond his classroom assignments and learning by putting into practice the lessons he has learned at class.
  4. The entire incident has the strong appearance of the University seeking retribution against Stewart for daring to distribute video that is not pictures of flowers or bunny rabbits but something that could cast certain students or the University in a less-than-favorable light.  The suspension of Stewart is a second black eye and not one that goes away easily.

 

The lesson such a suspension sends is a bad one for Stewart, a bad one for the Western Courier staff and a bad one for American journalism in the decades to come.  It appears to say that the First Amendment notwithstanding, journalists will be punished if they dare to “step out of line,” if they dare to question what and why something is happening and if they dare to publish something that is not favorable. 

The suspension has also left the newspaper in a state of flux, given the departure at winter break of its managing editor and news editor.  Are stories going uncovered?  Can anyone else do payroll? 

It is the fervent hope of INBA that Stewart be reinstated immediately and without penalty.  Thank you for your consideration, and we stand ready to speak with you should you desire additional input.