Is the Columbia Missourian’s policy unconstitutional?

An amicus curiae is a “friend of the court” – a person, unrelated to the proceedings of a case, who submits information of their own volition. I’m just a friend of the curious. Go here for the whole amicus curious blog.

This is a post about the Columbia Missourian’s conflict of interest policy, so let’s be transparent. I both pay and am paid by the University of Missouri. I produce graphics for the Missourian, and at the end of the semester I’ll receive a grade for my work. One of my sources, Sandy Davidson, the Missourian’s lawyer, was also my professor last semester. And that brings us to the complicated working world of the University of Missouri J-school and the Columbia Missourian.

Adam Goldstein published a blog post two weeks ago blasting the Missourian’s conflict of interest policy as unconstitutional. He said it hindered students’ free speech because it was enforced by professors who are employees of a public university and therefore the state. Goldstein is an attorney advocate with the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy organization for the legal rights of student journalists.

“Missouri is a public school and the editors are public employees,” he wrote in the post. “And that poses First Amendment limitations on their ability to control the speech of students, particularly when that speech is outside the pages of the publication.”

Sandy Davidson, the Missourian’s lawyer, said the policy was legal. She said it was a matter of agency law, the question of how far employers can control their employees. She cited the 2005 case of Garcetti v. Ceballos (see document below).

The Supreme Court decided in that case that public employees do not have a constitutional right to free speech when they are speaking as employees, and not as a regular citizens.

“Restricting speech that owes its existence to a public employee’s professional responsibilities does not infringe any liberties the employee might have enjoyed as a private citizen,” the court wrote. “It simply reflects the exercise of employer control over what the employer itself has commissioned or created.”

I am not a lawyer, but to my mind, this does not dismiss Goldstein’s argument out of hand. Since journalists’ jobs almost always deal with matters of public concern, whether their blog posts are a result of their jobs seems like an unanswerable question. I guess it’s a good thing I’m not a judge, either.

Goldstein did raise an interesting point: if I, a Missourian reporter, were to suddenly start endorsing a political candidate, I would certainly get in trouble somehow.

It’s unclear if my grade would suffer or if I would fail my class. Warhover refused to speak in hypotheticals like those, and said the paper would not release a statement on the policy controversy.

“I think the conclusion is that we’re on firm legal ground,” he said after a meeting with Davidson. “I’m not going to reject out of hand anything (Goldstein) says, but on the other hand, I just don’t think the post captured truly the unique nature of who we are and what we do.”

Click through my annotations for a quick overview of the Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos.

[documentcloud url=”https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/289808-garcetti-v-ceballos.html” width=600 height=600 sidebar=false]

Author: Samantha Sunne

Samantha Sunne is a freelance reporter working on data and investigative stories

3 thoughts on “Is the Columbia Missourian’s policy unconstitutional?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *