An open love letter to the SPLC (or why you can own my new book before I do)

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(It took me more than two years to build this thing and you can own the only print copy in existence before I do.)

I’m heading to the ACP/CMA National College Media Convention in Dallas, Texas tomorrow and waiting for me is a UPS package that contains the only physical copy of my book, “Dynamics of News Writing and Reporting.

And you can own it before I do because I’m giving it away for a great cause: The Student Press Law Center’s fundraising effort.

If you have never heard of SPLC, it means a) you have never been in any kind of legal trouble as a student journalist/student media member or b) you really should get to know the people at this organization. SPLC started in 1974 and has been providing free legal advice to students at all levels who are trying to keep government open, prevent censorship and basically operate freely under the First Amendment. They also find lawyers to work with students who are in a jam or trying to unjam an unlawful withholding of information or records.

My first experience with them came two days after I started as an adviser at Ball State University. A letter from them seeking donations was laying open in my mailbox, and came with a scrawled message on a Post-It Note:

“Hope you work closely with this agency. – L.E. Ingelhart.”

Louis Ingelhart was the founding chair of the department, a legend of student press and the namesake or winner of every meaningful free expression award in the country. He had long retired, but he knew I was “the new guy” and he wanted to make absolutely sure I knew about the importance of SPLC.

The folks at SPLC became the first call or email for us whenever we weren’t sure if we were on solid legal ground. If something went wrong with a story, we called SPLC. If someone was threatening us, we called SPLC. If someone stole our papers, we called SPLC. Over the years, I got to know the executive directors who ran the show: first was Mark Goodman, then Frank LoMonte. I can’t wait to meet Hadar Harris, who was recently named to the post. The folks there have always been gracious and helpful.

One of my favorite SPLC stories involved Ball State’s efforts to hire a provost. Students, faculty and staff were allowed to see the candidates in open sessions and then fill out evaluation forms that told the committee what they thought of each one. These are traditionally not for public consumption, but the chair of the search committee said in an open meeting that anyone who wanted to see them could go to the administration building and look at them. That was a mistake on his part, as it made them open records.

When we tried to get them, we were first denied. SPLC pushed. Our reporters were then handed some quickly created form that they had to sign before seeing the documents, agreeing that they could never disclose what they saw. SPLC told the reporters to write on the note that this was in no way enforceable and they were signing under protest. About five minutes after receiving the documents, the secretary came in (completely flustered) and began grabbing them all back from the students.

SPLC advised the reporters on how to file an open records request for these documents. The request was denied under some part of Indiana law that we didn’t understand. When we turned the letter over to SPLC, I remember the staffer laughing loudly upon figuring out the statute: The university was claiming that these documents were “internal memos” that were only meant to be shared with the 19,000 students and several thousand workers on campus, not with the whole world. SPLC filed documents for us and gave us legal help all the way through the process of presenting our position to the state arbiter. The state sided with us and we got the records. We never would have gotten close without SPLC.

On a personal note, SPLC saved me from a fate worse than death: the potential loss of my advising job.

Two years ago, the student government here at UW-Oshkosh decided I needed to go. The reasons are vast, but they decided to use a simple cudgel: We were in debt. That did not make us unique as a paper or as something at this university. It also wasn’t a surprise to the student government folks, as we had been petitioning them for more than six years to help us fix a broken financial model. Each time, we were told, “Don’t worry about the debt. We’ll figure it out.” (In fact, one of the people leading my ouster used even more colorful language in describing his position on our finances to a room full of staffers. It didn’t matter at all, he noted in the parlance of the movie “Scarface.”)

Now, however, they saw an opportunity. They drafted non-binding resolutions requesting that I quit and if I didn’t, that the chancellor fire me. They pushed for debt payments that could in no way be made. It looked like a downhill run to the end. The newspaper staff called SPLC and asked what could be done. SPLC doesn’t provide legal services to advisers, but they sure as hell don’t sit around watching as student media get kicked around, either.

They covered the event for their own website and put out news flashes on our plight. Frank availed himself of every opportunity to speak with local media and administrators to help outline the law and explain how this shouldn’t be happening. I remember being in a meeting once where one of the students coming after me had this perplexed/annoyed/fearful look on his face as he made note of this “national special interest group from Virginia” that was somehow gumming up their plans.

In the end, I had a lot of support from a lot of people, including an amazing chancellor and an anonymous donor who helped us launch a fundraising drive. (Frank personally even chipped in to aid in our efforts.) The paper is on solid financial ground again and producing great work. Still, I honestly believe it all started with the help of SPLC, who told us, essentially, “This isn’t happening. We got your back.”

That “formal resolution” petitioning people to fire me hangs on my wall in the office as does that letter from Lou Ingelhart, the writing fading from years of exposure. They remind me how lucky I am to have SPLC around and how much those folks do every day to keep the free press free.

Each year, SPLC receives money from a silent book auction at the national college media convention. People donate books of all kinds, as well as various other media memorabilia. The group uses this money to support its efforts to support student media. So this is why when my publisher told me I was getting a single advanced copy of a bound uncorrected proof of the book, I knew exactly where it should go. Without SPLC, I don’t have a paper, a book or a life that keeps me laughing all day at work.

If you are in Dallas, please stop by the auction any time after noon and bid generously on any of the books you see there. I often come home with a suitcase full of stuff. I hope one of you will go home with a few as well.

Including mine.

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