SPLC says Missourian’s noncompete policy violates First Amendment

J-School Buzz | Student Press Law Center
J-School Buzz, an independent blog covering the Missouri School of Journalism, has found an ally in its complaints about the Columbia Missourian’s policy forbidding its student reporters to work for other media. Adam Goldstein of the Student Press Law Center believes the Missourian’s policy violates the First Amendment, in part because the Missourian isn’t a typical student-run newspaper. It’s overseen by faculty members, who are state employees. He says the Missourian’s conflict of interest policy boils down to this: “a public university imposing limitations on free speech.” And he finds the policy ironic considering the more obvious conflicts present at Missourian:

It’s hard to see how an organization edited by people who are full-time paid agents of the entity it most frequently covers, who also happens to be the biggest employer in town, could ever have a conflicts policy that isn’t a joke.

J-School Buzz’s David Teeghman writes that the Missourian’s policy is especially restrictive because it means “you can not contribute to other newsrooms in any capacity. A lot of content posted on this site has come from contributors who only published once or twice.” A more reasonable policy would enable students to contribute to other outlets as long as they don’t hold a leadership position, he writes.

But Tom Warhover, Missouri journalism professor and executive editor for innovations at the Missourian, told me that the newspaper already tries to accomodate students with a specific conflict. He said he may revise the policy to describe ways that the Missourian can do that — perhaps by having a student work on a beat that doesn’t pose a conflict.

As for the SPLC’s First Amendment concerns, Warhover said he believes the Missourian is on firm legal ground because it restricts only particular activities that conflict with students’ work for the paper. “Can I say that when I’m at a coffee shop and I hear somebody talking about something, that my loyalty lies with publication X versus publication Y?” he asked. “It just strikes me as putting that student in a very difficult position.”

Earlier: Student forced to choose between J-School Buzz and The Missourian

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  • Reykjavik

     Then The Missourian’s only concern should be for students repurposing copyrighted material for other outlets (not like freelancers do this all the time).

  • Anonymous

    When I was a student at the Missourian, we were not paid. In fact, we paid thousands of dollars in tuition and fees to work there. The Missourian was part of the School of Journalism, and we worked at the newspaper as one or more of our required classes.

  • Reykjavik

    Are students paid market wages for their services? If not, then it seems to be prudish to have such a requirement. However, most employers who pay real salaries do demand right of approval for side gigs and have the right to veto anything that would be considered competitive. It’s not free speech, it’s employment law.

  • Anonymous

    as a total outsider who has only flown over missouri a couple of times, i am appaled that the subject of a non-compete clause is even raised at this level of journalism. (do any of these people get paid? how much?) are they frigging serious? i can just imagine this being excellent training for an army of little fascists eager to take over american journalism in the not too distant future. has alleged “competition” raised its ugly head to justify this, even at this level of the craft? i don’t think so. 

  • http://patricksweet.weebly.com/ Pat

    What this post – and others – fails to mention is that the conflict of interest policy was created by students.

    Exec. Editor Tom Warhover asked graduate students to review and update the conflict of interest policy for the newspaper. I was in the Advanced Reporting class that included the grad student project of updating the policies. As an undergrad, I didn’t have a direct role in crafting the policy, but as a student in the class, I was asked to discuss and provide feedback on what **my peers** had produced.

    What also seems to go missing from the conversation is that the policy isn’t absolute. You want to do a spot on KBIA or publish an article in The Maneater? Run the idea by your editor. What you’ll probably find is that the editor will encourage you to publish in the Missourian, not squelch your right to free speech. After all, students are employees (albeit unpaid) of that publication. The policy encourages open communication with editors, which is by far not a bad thing for students to learn.
    To suggest that editors at the newspaper are trying to impose limitations on free speech is absurd. I would encourage Adam Goldstein to contact some of the Missourian editors and learn a little more about the newspaper. Having worked in that newsroom for many semesters as a student, I can say that my editors did nothing but champion my right to free speech.

  • Anonymous

    As a Mizzou journalism alum who wrote for the Missourian and other local publications simultaneously, years before this rule was enacted, I just don’t see the need for it.

    If it’s a conflict-of-interest concern on assignments, simply tell Missourian reporters to avoid their beats if they work for other publications. If you report on Columbia city government at the Missourian, there’s no reason you can’t ethically report on Mizzou student life for The Maneater or produce music features at KCOU or generate unique content for online sites. Just stay away from City Hall.

    If there’s a concern about Missourian reporters leaking private internal information to their other employers, tell them not to do it.

    Generations of us simultaneously worked for the Missourian and other news outlets. I don’t remember there being a problem.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/U373RRLNXB2E2XNMUCDTKJIBWA Jeffrey

    Steve – The Missourian is independent corporation and is governed by a board of directors, not the University of Missouri. The Missourian Publishing Association is the owner. The Association has a contract with Mizzou for services, but the Missourian Publishing Association creates its rules. So I think it would be wrong to say that a “public university is imposing limitations.” 

    You can read more how the Missourian is set up here: http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2006/10/01/commentary-the-rest-of-the-story-facts-first/