University paper alleges retaliation over mold stories

A student newspaper has alleged that its university retaliated against it after it ran stories about potentially toxic mold in student residences.

In April, The Columns, a student newspaper at Fairmont State University in West Virginia, independently tested for the mold and found positive results. The paper also ran student testimony of medical issues that could have resulted from the mold.

According to Jacob Buckland, the paper’s editor-in-chief, the paper was facing administrative pressure even before the stories were published. The administration allegedly insisted on more editing before the stories went public.

Upon their release, J. Robert Baker, the head of the department that houses the paper, allegedly threatened to withhold funding for the paper unless he was given the mold test results. Baker also said that the staff could continue editing the paper as long as they did not print anything controversial.

A local news outlet has also said that Buckland told them that the paper could no longer access their email account and that their adviser, Michael Kelley, was falsely terminated in response to the stories. Kelley filed a grievance in June.

The Society of Professional Journalists has come to the adviser’s defense, arguing that there was no reason to let the “well-credentialed journalism adviser” go. The Student Press Law Center has also contacted the university on The Columns’ behalf, with College Media Matters and the College Media Association also showing their support for the paper.

Fairmont University responded to letters from The Society of Professional Journalists and The Columns stating the grievance with Kelley was a private matter and that it had no intentions of pulling funding from the paper.

A university spokeswoman, Ann Booth, told the Charleston Gazette that the university had not wrongly terminated Kelley. Instead, his position had always been intended to end in May.

In an interview with Campus Reform, Buckland said that Kelley had not yet been reinstated, but that Baker, the paper’s adviser had stepped down.

“By firing our adviser they are putting an end to the newspaper and the journalism program as a whole. The university is now completely without a journalism professor. Nobody else has the kind of real-world experience and knowledge in the field that he does. This is the beginning of the end,” Buckland said.

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