Seizure of Kansas Student Newspapers Shone Light on Dispute - Higher Education
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Seizure of Kansas Student Newspapers Shone Light on Dispute

by Roxana Hegeman, Associated Press

WICHITA, Kan. — A federal mediator is expected to hear arguments next month over a grievance stemming from a fray between administrators at Hutchinson Community College and student journalists and their suspended professor.

The dispute resulted in administrators cancelling media classes near the semester’s end and briefly seizing an edition of The Hutchinson Collegian. The student paper contained a story critical of the administration.

Professor Alan Montgomery alleges that the administration’s actions interfere with contractually guaranteed provisions for academic freedom and involve threats of disciplinary proceedings to intimidate students.

Montgomery is also suspended as a college employee, which is separate from the grievance the mediator will hear.

College President Carter File declined to discuss the suspension or student discipline, but defended the college’s actions. “Honestly, I don’t care what is in the paper,” he said.

“This is a student paper,” File said. “It should be produced by the students for the students and we have exercised absolutely no editorial control over this from an administration standpoint.”

The trouble began after Editor Loribeth Reynolds and staff writer Jeff Leddy wrote stories in December chronicling a dispute among faculty members and critical of the administration’s handling of it. Montgomery, who was co-president of the faculty union at the time, was quoted in the story. But as the paper’s faculty adviser, he also edited the stories and coached the students writing them.

When the students came back after the Christmas break they were summoned for disciplinary hearings under threat of expulsion. Montgomery said he used some of his own savings to hire an attorney to represent the students.

“It affected the way I could teach the course, it completely hobbled us as to what we could put in the Collegian — the students were living in fear,” Montgomery said.

The college accused Leddy of academic dishonesty for allegedly misrepresenting work under his byline, claiming Montgomery had written the December story. Reynolds wrote a related story saying that the college president seemed “more nervous than a Muslim at a Trump rally” when contacted for comment — the line that purportedly got her into trouble.

Both students refused to sign immunity agreements that would have imposed a gag order and required them to turn over their reporting notes. The students say they have not been notified of the outcome of the proceedings.

Montgomery was suspended on April 28 and his journalism classes were cancelled two weeks before the end of the semester. Montgomery said he has been accused of using his professional relationship with students for private advantage and inappropriately disclosing information about students and colleagues.

Days after his suspension, a college security officer confiscated the bulk of the student newspaper’s press run as Reynolds and Leddy were about to distribute it.

“He took it out of my hands and I felt degraded — treated as a thief for trying to distribute the newspaper, said Leddy, a 24-year-old Marine veteran.

The papers were distributed hours later in the wake of widespread media attention.

That confiscated issue included a story about Montgomery seeking help from the U.S. attorney’s office for alleged civil rights violations against the journalism students. The U.S. attorney’s office told Montgomery last week it did not have jurisdiction over the issue.

Montgomery said the mediator will hear the dispute on June 8.

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