February 03, 2015

Working to protect the First Amendment rights of a student newspaper editor, Jenner & Block, on February 2, 2015, persuaded Western Illinois University to drop its suspension of the student editor along with all disciplinary charges the University had brought against him.

Nicholas Stewart, a senior meteorology major at Western Illinois University, was suspended on January 22, 2015, by a University administrator who branded him a “threat” to the University’s “normal operations.”  The suspension came more than a month after Mr. Stewart had published video of a campus melee at which police officers were seen using pepper spray on several students.

The University had contended that at the time Mr. Stewart made the video, he acted in his capacity as editor of the newspaper, The Western Courier, and that he had sold to broadcast media outage video footage bearing the newspaper’s name, without permission of the University or the newspaper.  The video footage, and the campus incident it depicted, received national media attention.

The Student Press Law Center, the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and the Society of Professional Journalists(SPJ) criticized the University’s suspension of Mr. Stewart.  The SPJ said the suspension “sends the message that student journalists must now fear suspension for publishing news of which the university does not approve, and that the First Amendment is only looked upon favorably when it benefits the university.” 

Partner Gabriel A. Fuentes stepped in to represent Mr. Stewart pro bono.  Mr. Fuentes conducted an investigation and traveled to Macomb, Illinois, to appear at a disciplinary hearing before the newspaper’s Publications Board.  At the hearing, Mr. Fuentes conveyed to the Board and the University the results of the Jenner & Block investigation, which showed that: (1) at the time Mr. Stewart made the video, the newspaper had stopped publishing for the semester, and Mr. Stewart was acting as a freelance journalist on his own time, as specifically permitted by the newspaper’s handbook; and (2) the video footage Mr. Stewart sold to broadcast media outlets through a broker did not contain any “watermark,” and the versions aired by the broadcast media outlets contained only the names of Mr. Stewart and the broker, and not the names of The Western Courier or Western Illinois University. 

Five days later, the University lifted the suspension and dropped all disciplinary charges against Mr. Stewart.

“The University has vindicated Nicholas Stewart entirely by lifting the suspension and dropping the disciplinary proceedings with no finding that he did anything wrong,” Fuentes said.  “All Mr. Stewart did in this case was act as a freelance journalist.  His right to do so was fully protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Mr. Stewart is looking forward to resuming his activities as an award-winning student journalist and as an exemplary member of the Western Illinois University community.”