Sep 202010
Authors: Madeline Novey

The adviser of CU-Boulder’s student newspaper publicly accused the dean of the journalism school last week of firing her in retaliation for trying to defend her students against “bullying” behavior by faculty, a claim the dean refutes.

Amy Herdy, who was fired on June 30, said Dean Paul Voakes asked her to read the paper’s editorial content and give him a “heads-up” when the CU-Independent planned to publish controversial material so that he could pass it on to the university’s administration and legal counsel. Herdy told Voakes she would not do so.

The dean’s alleged actions represent a systematic movement of late in some student newspapers around the country toward an overarching private model that, while eliminating conflicts of interest with universities, has brought fears that their First Amendment rights to a free press are being quashed.

Voakes vehemently denied the allegations.

“I never said, ‘I need to see everything before you post it on the website,’” he said, adding that prior review is contradictory to his own journalistic principles and the CU-Independent’s Charter, which he authored.

Voakes said he fired Herdy for “business reasons.” Gil Asakawa, who has 25 years experience in the industry and specializes in social and online media, took Herdy’s place on Aug. 23.

Student journalists at the CU-I said they have been afraid of retaliation for the past two and a half years from school officials after the school sought to prior review material at the top echelons of the administration.

Those talks were spurred by an editorial column by staff editor Max Karson that advocated hog-tying Asian students and making them eat rotten sushi. The piece gained national infamy almost as soon as it hit the paper’s website in February 2008.

Herdy said she offered to look at the copy before it went to print, but student editors refused her help.

In the months following the media storm, former CU-I editors said several staff members came to them and said they felt singled out and were afraid to admit that they worked for the paper. They said they were alienated and “harassed” by faculty in the journalism school. Voakes said it is “unfair to characterize the situation as faculty bullying students.”

The CU-Independent is not alone in its editorial decision-making process concerning controversial material, as student university newspapers nationwide battle for the right to free speech and publication of uncensored content. Administration at the University of San Diego, a private Catholic college, requires prior review of all content before publication following its publication of a controversial advertisement.

“It’s easy to defend the First Amendment when students are uncovering hidden truths in well-researched stories that reveal things some would like hidden,” then-head of the College Media Advisers Kathy Lawrence said in a review of the CU-Independent last year. “It’s not so easy when a youthful misstep produces a product that may embarrass the faculty, though that’s probably when the faculty should defend the student staff all the more vigorously.”

CSU has experienced similar controversy after the Collegian was scrutinized by international media after it practiced its First Amendment rights by publishing a Sept. 21, 2007 editorial in font twice the size of a normal headline that said an uncensored version of this: “Taser this … F**K Bush.”

A variety of public backlash from faculty and readers –– including loss of advertising revenue –– stemmed from publication of the editorial.

Conservative student leaders said despite freedom of speech, Student Media should suffer the consequences of decreases in advertising that are inevitable with such a bold statement.

The student media dichotomy

The CU-I is no stranger to controversy and administrative backlash.

In the 1960s the paper, then the Colorado Daily, was pressured off campus because of its controversial coverage criticizing the Vietnam War.

In the Daily’s absence, CU journalism professor Mal Deans founded the Campus Press, technically a class that printed a weekly paper originally known as The Working Press. The Campus Press was the first online newspaper in Colorado, beginning in April 1994.

The Campus Press model, said Len Ackland, a CU journalism professor, was rife with conflict because, in a class, material is reviewed prior to publication, making the teachers the de facto editors. Students can’t fully exercise their right to free speech.

“How do you have a newspaper where the editors and reporters are being graded?” Ackland said, “It’s a contradiction.”

In 2006, the paper went exclusively online and became the CU-Independent in August 2008. It is now an extracurricular student organization funded by advertising and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

After Karson’s column ran, Ackland said, emotions ran high. He questioned the editorial decision-making process and wondered what kind of advice Herdy had offered her students.

Leading up to publication, Herdy said then-Editor in Chief Cassie Hewlings and Karson were struggling to meet eye-to-eye on whether or not the column should run. Herdy said she offered to meet with the both of them and offer editorial advice, but Hewlings didn’t want the advice.

Herdy suggested that a journalism student of Asian descent read the editorial, and that student found it funny. Herdy read the column for the first time the day after it ran.

Former CU-I Editor in Chief Cameron Naish, who graduated in May, said instead of acting as teachers and mentors, the faculty instead “jumped on the bandwagon of ripping us apart.”

That same day, Herdy wrote Voakes an e-mail in which she requested that he stop the faculty’s bullying behavior. Later in the spring, Herdy and two student editors also met with Vice Chancellor Julie Wong to request moving the CU-I from under the journalism school to Student Affairs. The request was denied.

Naish said that even two years later, Wong still brought up the Karson issue. “It’s been years … and it’s still like yesterday,” he said.

Voicemail messages and e-mails from the Collegian to three current and former faculty and two former and current CU-I staff attempting to gather more input about CU’s student-faculty relationship were not returned.

Voakes said in Herdy’s annual performance review on June 23, 2008, that he wanted to give any controversial stories the newspaper was planning to print to the university’s top administrators and legal counsel.

He said that process “is fairly standard in a publisher/editor relationship in the professional world.”

In the same paragraph, Voakes said Herdy should “be aware of every aspect of editorial planning in every section of the paper, on a daily basis” and that she should be able to “read any copy that is being read by student editors.”

Frank LaMonte, executive editor of the Student Press Law Center, said this language made it sound as if Herdy’s job depended on reviewing all of the copy before it was published, which could violate the First Amendment.

“Any school that tries to exercise control over what their papers try to publish is maximizing its jeopardy,” LaMonte said.

But Voakes said he would never require prior review.

The future of journalism at CU

On Aug. 25, CU announced the end of its existing journalism school and a plan to reopen a program more reflective of the rapidly-evolving media industry.

With the rise of social media and the Internet, newspapers and media entities nationwide have struggled to remain relevant and hundreds have crippled under the strains of a dated business models.

Managers today are looking for employees skilled across multiple platforms –– writing, programming, photography, design and video –– and are willing to pay less for more. Some critics say this model cannot sustain “watchdog” journalism, which keeps government and leaders in check.

People familiar with the situation said they are unsure of whether the school, in its new form, will effectively train future journalists.

Most of CU’s existing faculty is not capable of bringing the school into the future of journalism, according to Herdy and former CU-I Editor in Chief Danielle Alberti.

“It’d be good to see more multimedia emphasis and a little bit less ‘we’re going to play with Woodward and Bernstein,’” Alberti said.

Voakes, however, said the faculty are not “young techy wizards” but can “mold with change.”

While on board with the changes to incorporate social media, video and computing into the future of SJMC, Ackland said traditional journalism –– which he said comprises writing well, accurate and fair reporting, research and investigation and watchdog-style stories –– must be a priority.

“If not, then journalism is dead at CU,” Ackland said.

With re-accredidation of SJMC coming up in mid-February, Herdy said the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools would be “horrified” to learn about the school’s atmosphere and treatment of its student media.

Voakes, however, said there is no doubt in his mind that SJMC would receive full accreditation, touting the success of the school’s faculty, curriculum and push toward an new media structure.

*Since the August announcement, an Discontinuance Committee has talked with students, faculty and alumni about the future of the school.

*On Sept. 1, the Academic Review and Planning Advisory Committee began its work to look at ways to integrate the school into other academic programs and determine whether the budget is sustainable. The committee will report to DiStefano at the end of October as to whether or not SJMC should be discontinued in its current form.

*The Exploratory Committee, too, will work to gather feedback from across the university. It must report its findings to Interim Provost Russell Moore by the end of the fall semester. In early 2011, DiStefano will then make his recommendation to CU’s governing board, the Board of Regents.

Though supportive of future shifts, Ackland said he believes that there are a lot of agendas floating around and that it would be nice to know what CU’s leaders are planning.

“Ideally, I would feel much better if Chancellor DiStefano and President Bruce Benson would say journalism education is vital, and it is going to remain an important part of the CU campus,” Ackland said.

Editor in Chief Madeline Novey can be reached at

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