GA Journalism Professor Victim of Backlash From University Officials, ACLU Charges

Affiliate: ACLU of Georgia
June 25, 1999 12:00 am

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ATLANTA — In a federal lawsuit filed here today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia said that officials at Fort Valley State University did not renew a professor’s contract because his journalism students wrote articles critical of the school.

During his tenure as advisor to the student newspaper, The Peachite, Professor Jonathan Schmitt helped the publication grow from a public relations document to an award-winning newspaper. Many of the articles and opinions written by the student journalists were unflattering to Fort Valley State University and of individual university officials.

One such article criticized University President Oscar Prater for being inaccessible to the student body. Another article described the bungled efforts of the university to prevent a student’s death from asthma.

After The Peachite published articles about Dr. Josephine Davis, Vice President for Academic Affairs, questioning the circumstances surrounding her resignation from York College in Queens, NY., Professor Schmitt received a notice that his contract would not be renewed.

In her investigation of Davis’s academic past, student author and editor Anika White reported allegations of Davis’s questionable financial practices at York College, where she served as the first African-American woman president in the City University of New York system.

The ACLU’s complaint also alleges that the decision not to renew Professor Schmitt’s contract was racially discriminatory and that Dr. Davis said in an interview with Editor and Publisher magazine that she feared Professor Schmitt was part of a “white, Jewish, male” conspiracy.

“College students should be entitled to publish free from censorship,” said attorney Linda Mabry, who also represents Schmitt. “It seems clear that in this case, the University acted in a retaliatory fashion.”

While university officials were unhappy with the students’ reporting, they received recognition and awards from numerous student press organizations. White, the paper’s student editor, was elected to the post of State Secretary of the Georgia College Press Association. The opinion editor, Felicia Browder, was elected to the Senior Board of Directors of the Georgia College Press Association. The Peachite staff also won awards from the Georgia College Press Association, including Best News Article Based on Objective Reporting and Best Editorial or Editorial Series.

“Schmitt’s evaluation and his list of accomplishments are stellar and the awards given to the students and to The Peachite are stellar, so we are forced to look at the First Amendment implications,” said Hollie Manheimer, one of the ACLU attorneys representing Professor Schmitt.

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