“We don’t have to worry about censorship, relying on funding from the university, or the risk of being closed down,” said Erica Peel, Newsroom Advisor for The Daily Tar Heel. We used this quote on the front page of the Oct. 8 newspaper in an article about UNC System schools who celebrated their First Amendment freedoms last week.
As the staff of the Western Carolinian, we never thought our campus newspaper would be shut down. On Sept. 24, we were shocked to learn WCU administrative officials suspended the newspaper’s operations and suspended the staff with pay. We were also told to return our keys to the newspaper office and not publish anything online or in print. Staff members were not contacted about why the shut-down occurred, but later found out in a news article by the Student Press Law Center titled “N.C. university shuts down student newspaper after plagiarism accusation” that WCU Public Relations Office said the Western Carolinian was suspended because newspaper staff had not responded to administrators’ requests to meet about a plagiarism charge. This is untrue. This investigation into alleged plagiarism first began in August and the Western Carolinian was cooperative throughout the entire process. WCU Student Affairs administrators concluded the allegations against Western Carolinian staff members were unfounded. We stand by our assertion that student staff are innocent of the plagiarism charges.
Operations at the Western Carolinian have since resumed, but we still cannot comprehend why the university would take such a drastic action as to halting a free press. A letter sent to WCU by Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, who provides legal assistance to student journalists about their rights, said the action taken against the Western Carolinian was in violation of the First Amendment.
“Directing a newspaper to cease publishing is the textbook definition of a ‘prior restraint.’ As the Supreme Court has made abundantly clear, a prior restraint may be justified only in the most extreme circumstances imaginable, such as an imminent threat to the safety of American troops. Since we assume that the Western Carolinian is in possession of no national—security secrets, halting its publication is undeniably a First Amendment violation,” Lamonte said.
Lamonte also referenced “Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District”, which stated student speech may be restrained only when necessary to present a material and substantial disruption to school discipline, such as the provocation of violence.
The decision by Western Carolina University to suspend this newspaper has given WCU a negative reputation across the United States. In addition, the accusation of plagiarism put the Western Carolinian, our staff and our adviser in a negative light. We value original work at the Western Carolinian and give credit where and when it is deserved. We realize mistakes happen, but a correction will quickly follow. As the staff of the Western Carolinian, an award-winning newspaper which was a finalist for two national awards last fall, we look to restore our reputation which was recently damaged. .
We look forward to continue serving the community of Cullowhee, including the students, faculty and staff at WCU.