SEJC condemns actions of UNA; UNA president responds

On November 29, past and current presidents of the Southeast Journalism Conference issued a thorough condemnation of the University of North Alabama’s recent actions regarding its Student Media adviser position. The university’s president responded yesterday, defending the university in a letter of his own.

SEJC’s letter was addressed to the university’s president Kenneth Kitts and provost Ross C. Alexander. It was also sent to UNA’s board of trustees and to members of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. There has been no response as of yet from anyone CCed on the letter.

The SEJC letter issues a condemnation for “what we regard as an unjust, unnecessary and seemingly punitive action in forcing media adviser Scott Morris from his position.” Morris currently advises The Flor-ala, the student newspaper. The letter goes on to read, “We are also troubled by your new faculty protocols that mandate that any requests for media interviews with faculty must be screened through the administration. This not only infringes on students’ First Amendment rights but undermines the principle of academic freedom as well.”

The College Media Association issued a censure on UNA on November 26. CMA argued administrators “could provide absolutely no correspondence, reports or materials indicating they were thinking of changing (Morris’) position before publication of the Sept. 6 article that students and Morris said instigated the change.” Morris claims that he was made aware his job description only weeks after The Flor-ala reported that UNA administration improperly withheld public documents.

That news article cited the president of Alabama Defense Lawyers Association, Dennis Bailey, was quoted as saying the administration was “acting in contravention of a long-time published Attorney General Opinion on the subject.”

However, UNA officials deny any accusations of retaliation. They claim discussions of replacing of Morris’ position with a tenure-track line for a candidate with a terminal degree far pre-date 2018. Kitts maintains this position in his response to SEJC.

“(The decisions) do not involve any considerations that constitute a threat to the First Amendment. Rather, they reflect sound, fair, and deliberative decisions that are consistent with our academic needs and recommended practices in the field of student journalism.”

In response to criticisms on the school’s policies for dealing with media inquiries, Kitts argues that the school is in compliance with the Foundation For Individual Rights in Education’s inquiry into the matter. “Our organizational practices in dealing with media inquiries are already in alignment with FIRE guidelines, and soon we will have a statement in place that is consistent with the one featured on the FIRE website.”

The SEJC letter also contains an extensive quote from former UNA communications department head Greg Pitts, who disputes the university’s claims, recalling “no talk of converting the position to a faculty line.” He also wrote “If UNA asserts that discussion started in 2014 to change the position to a tenure‐track line, I must add that it did NOT begin with me. If anyone asserts that I made this request, I would describe their claim as FALSE.” Kitts’ letter does not reference these comments nor Pitts’ time with the university.

In a story published yesterday by the Student Press Law Center, Morris maintained his stance that the decision was based on student coverage of the administration. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they told me to leave today,” Morris told the SPLC. 

Alexander was reached for comment for the SPLC story and declined. He did not directly respond to SEJC’s letter.