SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — The leader of Ozarks Technical Community College's governing board ordered student journalists not to publish responses to questionnaires they sent to six finalists in the running to become president of the school.
The students had planned to include the responses in yesterday's edition of the school newspaper, The Eagle, to help preview upcoming campus visits by the finalists.
But on April 10, board President Jackie McKinsey demanded that the students not publish any answers they received, citing advice from a consultant.
"PLEASE STOP THE ARTICLE. YOU ARE NOT TO USE THE 'INTERVIEW' MATERIAL," McKinsey wrote in an e-mail.
After considering resigning and not publishing, the staff decided instead on a story explaining why the questionnaire responses were not in the paper.
Editor James Foutch told the Springfield News-Leader that McKinsey made him feel "like I had just been treated like a child."
"We feel like we're being censored," he said. "Jackie McKinsey felt the questions were inappropriate. We're going to give out what happened and that we were told not to print the responses."
Ty Patterson, vice president for student affairs, said he was unaware of the controversy and wished he would have been brought into the discussion. He said The Eagle was started to be "an organ of the students, not for the board."
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Law Press Center in Arlington, Va., said the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Missouri in its jurisdiction, has made "very clear and very strong protections" of the rights of student newspapers.
"School officials cannot interfere or punish students for the decisions they make" concerning the newspaper, Goodman said.
Goodman said the students could sue for damages or a declaration that they have the right to publish without interference.
McKinsey said she didn't consider her actions censorship. She said she advised the candidates not to respond to the questionnaire and later asked that any responses not be published after talking to the search committee's consultant, Don Hunter of Hockaday-Hunter & Associates of North Carolina.
Three candidates had responded by April 10, and a fourth returned a response on April 12.
One candidate had contacted Hunter, asking if the questionnaire was sanctioned by the board. The questions, which McKinsey did not find objectionable, included: "Share three goals for OTC that you will actively work toward."
Hunter declined to comment yesterday. However, McKinsey told the News-Leader that Hunter had said it was not appropriate for the candidates to answer questions a month before visiting the campus. McKinsey also said she was concerned the candidates had only about a day to respond.
McKinsey said she asked Hunter whether there was an "issue of the freedom of the press, and he said, 'No.'"
Goodman said asking a consultant for legal advice is "not too smart. It's not their area of expertise."
McKinsey said the newspaper staff would have a chance to ask questions when the candidates meet with students, the community and faculty. She said the issue had been "blown out of proportion."
"Part was my fault, part was theirs," she said.