Backlash from Flor-Ala article in student newspaper gets advisor dismissed

“Advisors hardly ever win and the only way a college editor will lose is if they let themselves lose,” said Michael Koretzky, SPJ national board member and and SPJ Region 3 director

Above photo, from left to right: University of North Alabama Flor-Ala student newspaper’s Managing Editor Karah Wilson, News Editor Chandler Mordecai, former Sports Editor Hunter Anderson, current Sports Editor Chase Glover, Editor-in-Chief Harley Duncan, former Graphic Designer Claire McIlwain, social media coordinator Anna Mahan (TimesDaily.com | Matt McKean)

By Hannah Lester, reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com, Auburn University

The University of North Alabama is locked into conflict with its student-run newspaper, The Flor-Ala. And, the university has been recently censured by the College Media Association.

The time line

In July 2018, former UNA Vice President of Student Affairs David Shields resigned. In addition, a university professor, Gregory Gaston, was placed on trespass notice, according to an article in the Flor-Ala.

By December 2018, however, a Flor-Ala article confirmed that Gaston had been sent a letter of termination after an investigation into sexual misconduct claims.

Two University of North Alabama employees, left, David Shields; right, Gregory Gaston; were the center of the investigation by Flor-Ala when the university dismissed the student advisor, Scott Morris. Linkedin photos

In September of 2018, current Flor-Ala Editor-In-Chief Harley Duncan wrote an article for the paper discussing the university’s public records regarding Shields and Gaston. In the article, Duncan affirmed that UNA administration refused to provide the records and he quoted a university attorney. This attorney believed she had spoken to Duncan off the record and was unhappy with the article.

After The Flor-Ala released the article, Duncan said there was no indication that anything was wrong between the paper and the university. However, a few weeks later, the university released Flor-Ala advisor Scott Morris from his advising position with a claim that he now needed a doctorate.

Advisor loses job

For many, the university’s actions against Morris might have seemed deliberate retaliation against the student newspaper. Despite the UNA’s claims that there was no retaliation, the incident has garnered a lot of attention. Photo left: Scott Morris, former advisor to the Flor-Ala student newspaper. (TimesDaily.com)

Flor-Al staff is still waiting for the public records that they requested months ago, which was one of the sparks that started the whole controversy.

“Most of my experience with journalism had been just being a writer and then in the classroom, and now I was facing these huge ethical questions and stories as a managing editor and it was a lot to take in,” Duncan said.

Photo: Flor-Al Managing Editor Harley Duncan. Supplied photo

Without an advisor, the Duncan said it would be more difficult to cover the university news effectively.

Ultimately, he and his staff are students pursuing their education, but have been thrown into possible situation of backlash from their university. The Flor-Ala, however, is not fully independent from the university, Duncan said, as the editors do receive UNA scholarships.

The Flor-Ala, like most university papers, is determined to spread news and information to students and UNA readership. Duncan said their responsibility is to write the truth.

“I don’t know if we need to kind of listen to the whole narrative of … because it looks bad for the University then you shouldn’t cover it,” he said. “I think that, that’s pretty clear that – that’s not journalism.”

Harley Duncan, managing editor of University of North Alabama’s Flor-Al student newspaper

Journalism organizations respond

By November 2018, the College Media Association censured the University of North Alabama after having conducted a thorough investigation, according to a CMA article. Censure is the expression of formal disapproval or condemnation.

“If college officials decided to remove the adviser as punishment for something that students published, then that reeks of retaliation for Constitutionally protected student speech,” stated CMA Chris Evans in a press release. CMA is a nonprofit organization includes more than 600 college media advisers as members.

Michael Koretzky, SPJ national board member and SPJ Region 3 Director, said that the release of Morris as The Flor-Ala‘s advisor was an obvious attack to the paper. It is often successful for universities to attack a paper through their advisor, he said.

Koretzky volunteers as an advisor for the college paper, The University Press, at Florida Atlantic University and keeps abreast of college media issues.

According to Koretzky, often when a university fires an advisor, they may still be kept in a teaching position. This prevents the advisor from taking action against the university. In Morris’ situation, however, he was fully released from the university, which will take effect at the end of the school year, both as an advisor and in his teaching position, he said.

Photo left: Michael Koretzky

Morris is now free to react in any way he wishes, including taking action against the university, Koretzky said. Duncan said he feels first amendment rights are at stake for faculty members at the University of North Alabama.

Koretzky said that first amendment rights have always been on the line and though this is nothing new, they should not be ignored.

Because of the vast reach of the internet, universities often care more about student newspapers than they did in the past, said Koretzky. Stories now have a larger audience and may therefore be more damaging to a university. Additionally, he said that student publications may also face backlash from student government as well as administration.

“I think, however, as I told [Duncan], that the best thing you can do is inoculate yourself by seeking as much help and announcing that you want to do the kind of journalism you want to do so that you are protected,” Koretzky said.

Duncan said he suspects the university is hoping the issue might blow over and be forgotten.

“If [Duncan] wants some support then SPJ will help him out, because it is very seldom the case that they fire the advisor and that’s all they do … the end is more control of the paper.”

Michael Koretzky, SPJ national board member and SPJ Region 3 Director

Koretzky and SPJ are also prepared to provide as much help to Morris as he would like. One option, he said, is public humiliation of the university. However, if the university is not concerned with their public image then Morris may be out of options.

For the Flor-Ala and Duncan, on the other hand, one option may be to take their case to court. This could help spread the news and may play on the sympathies of those who see a 20-year-old editor, Koretzky said.

“I have never known a situation, zero times in 20 years, where a student editor fought for their rights against administration of student government and at the end of the day did not win,” he said. “And by winning I mean became stronger people personally, suffered zero consequences professionally.”

Hannah Lester is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 spring intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She will be graduating from Auburn University this spring with a major in journalism. hannah.lester.spj@gmail.com