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UPDATE: WIU Draws Criticism for Suspending Student

Feb 2, 2015

UPDATE (2/2/15, 5:25 p.m.): Western Illinois University has reinstated Nick Stewart as Editor-in-Chief for the Western Courier. The interim suspension was lifted late Monday afternoon.

Nick Stewart shared the letter he received from WIU via his Facebook page:

Dear Nicholas Stewart:

A preliminary review by the Associate Vice President for Student Services has revealed that no complete policy exists within the Western Courier to guide us in determining a finding regarding your association with the Western Courier and your work as a freelance journalist. Our review indicates that there have been inadequate meeting minutes of the publications board for over five years, and Mr. Richard Moreno,the Director of Student Publications, could provide no definitive informaiton.

Given the lack of guidance available regarding Western Courier policies and procedures, I am lifting your suspension immediately, and I will inform the publications board of this action.

As we move forward in this semester, I am requesting that the Associate Vice President for Student Services and the publications board organize so that they do have officers, regular meetings, meeting minutes, and to develop policies, procedures, and a code of ethics appropriate to this publication. I suggest that the publications board review the policies, procedures, and ethics statements from the University of Illinois and Illinois State University for additional guidance.

Again, thank you for your cooperation in this matter.

ORIGINAL STORY:

Western Illinois University is making headlines by taking action against the student who recorded and sold footage of a brawl that broke out on campus Dec. 12.

The video of the brawl on Dec 12. made the rounds on social media and various news outlets. It shows law enforcement officers using pepper spray to disperse a crowd near the University Union.

Credit Tim Schroll/WIU

Nick Stewart, a senior meteorology major, filmed the video and uploaded it to his personal Youtube channel as Macomb Illinois Riot. Stewart is the Editor-in-Chief for the Western Courier, the student newspaper on campus, and he also shared the link on the Courier’s website and turned the footage over to a third-party broker, who sold it to several news outlets.

Stewart received a letter from Vice President for Student Services Gary Biller on Jan. 22. stating that Stewart was under an interim suspension from his job with pay and that he faced possible disciplinary action by the school’s judicial board.

Biller wrote that he "believes Stewart’s action as Editor in Chief poses a threat to the normal operations of the University.” Biller also wrote that the money Stewart made off the video belonged to the school or at least to the Western Courier.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington D.C., an organization that advocates on behalf of students’ First Amendment rights, penned an article in support of Stewart. LoMonte questioned the threat Stewart poses to the university.

“To accuse someone of being a threat because he has been freelancing. What is he threatening to do? Do more freelancing in the future?

“I think it’s clear from the tone of that letter and the use of the word threat what is really going on here and what’s really go on is that the university is embarrassed by the fact the Nick was able to circulate and publicize a video they found unflattering to the institution. That’s the threat they are trying to respond to. The threat to their public image,” LoMonte said.

Several other organizations also publicly criticized Western’s actions. That includes the Academe Blog, which asserted Western is violating state law and Stewart's First Amendment rights.

Jim Romenesko, a media blogger, has also taken up the issue after learning of it through an email from Bill Knight, a former journalism professor at WIU.

The Illinois News Broadcasters Association sent a letter to WIU President Jack Thomas, saying the organization was shocked and displeased to learn of Stewart’s suspension.

According to the letter, “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.” (full disclosure: Tri States Public Radio's news reporters are members of the INBA)

The Society for Professional Journalists is calling for Stewart's immediate reinstatement.

According to SPJ's release, “He (Stewart) should be commended for seeing a breaking news story and taking the initiative to cover it when he was not on the clock and the newspaper was on hiatus for break – SPJ would be more concerned if he had seen this news happening and did not do everything he could to report on it by whatever means available,” said SPJ President-Elect Paul Fletcher.

UPDATE: A group of 45 alumni of the Western Courier have signed a letter addressed to the University’s Board of Trustees and the Courier’s Publication Board in support support of Nick Stewart.

Western Illinois University will not comment on the situation. Darcie Shinberger with University Relations said “Judicial matters and proceedings, as well as personnel matters, are confidential.”

Gary Biller's letter outlines the reasons for Stewart's interim suspension.
Credit Rich Moreno / Western Courier

In Biller’s letter, he asserted Stewart violated portions of the University’s student code of conduct specifically in reference to these sections:

  • Committing acts of dishonesty, including, but not limited to the following: attempting to represent the University, any recognized student organization, or an official University group without the explicit prior consent of the officials of that group.  
  • Engaging in acts of theft or abuse of computer time, including, but not limited to: unauthorized financial gain or commercial activity.
  • Committing violations of rules and regulations duly established and promulgated by University departments.

According to the code, it’s not just an issue over freelancing fees. Western contends Stewart was a school employee acting as a reporter for the Western Courier on the night of Dec. 12. Thus Stewart did not have the right to sell the video because it belonged to the newspaper.

Kelly McBride, an ethicist on staff with the Poynter Institute, which is a media trade group in St. Petersburg, Florida, said the university would need to prove Stewart was working for the Western Courier when he shot the video.

“If you’re a reporter and you’re on the job, if you’re a photographer and you’re on the job and you’re clearly on assignment for the organization, the organization owns that video. But if you’re not then it’s yours,” McBride said.

Stewart declined to be interviewed for this story. But it told the Western Courier that he used his own equipment to record and edit the video.

A version of this video displaying Nicholas Stewart/LSM was used by news outlets.
Credit Screencap of the copy Nick Stewart gave to Live Stream Media / Live Stream Media's YouTube Channel

The video Stewart uploaded to YouTube displayed his name in the lower left corner followed by Western Courier.  But the copy that made the media rounds did not mention the university or the Western Courier. Instead, it displayed Nick Stewart’s name and the acronym LSM, which stands for Live Storm Media, the third party broker that sold the video.

The Western Courier was on hiatus after publishing its last issue for the semester earlier that day. The newspaper’s Director Rich Moreno serves on the Courier's Publications Board. He said during the board's meeting last week that there’s always been this kind of unwritten understanding of “Courier first” and then students were free to do what they want.  

“The Courier operations manual does address the issue of freelancing and it’s always been in my experience that the Courier has always encouraged students to go ahead and do work for themselves,” Moreno said.  

It does not seem the Courier's approach to freelancing was an issue with the university before this incident. Frank LoMonte with the Student Press Law Center suggested why it might be an  issue now.

“If that video was a video of a birthday party or a dog catching a Frisbee then we wouldn’t be here having this conversation right now. No question what so ever,” LoMonte said.

“The reason that the university wants to stick it to this editor and bring him up on disciplinary charges is because they are trying to protect their public image and send a message to other journalists not to embarrass them in the future.”

Stewart will need to meet with the publication’s board and a university auditor before eventually going before the school’s judicial board. Possible action by the judicial board could include ordering Stewart to pay restitution or serve probation.  The board could also decide to expel him.

(full disclosure: Tri States Public Radio News Director Rich Egger serves as Chair of the Western Courier Publications Board)