University of Tulsa Creates 'Atmosphere of Fear' to Silence Criticism, Students Say

Editors who published an investigation into the school's handling of a student's suspension say university officials used intimidation to try to kill the story

The McFarlin Library on the University of Tulsa's campus in Tulsa, Okla.

Photographer: Blake Burkhart/Flickr

Student journalists at the University of Tulsa  say they have become targets of the college administration after officials at the Oklahoma school suggested they might receive disciplinary action for publishing a damaging investigation into a fellow student's suspension. 

On Feb. 9, the top editors at the Collegian, Tulsa’s student newspaper, wrote an article about a student who was suspended without a hearing because of negative Facebook posts his husband wrote about the school. Administrators tried to stop the publication of the story by intimidating students and staff affiliated with the paper, student journalists say. 

Two weeks before the story—itself a damning commentary on the school's reaction to critical speech—was published, Editor-in-Chief Kyle Walker and Managing Editor Conor Fellin, who wrote the article, set up a meeting with University Director of Communications Mona Chamberlin's office and recorded the meeting, with Chamberlin's knowledge. The two seniors say Chamberlin issued nine minutes of cautious hints that they might be subject to action if they moved forward with the investigation. 

The front page of the Collegian, Tulsa's student newspaper, reporting its investigation of a student suspension

The front page of the Collegian, Tulsa's student newspaper, bearing the investigation into George "Trey" Barnett's suspension.

“The university takes its commitments to its faculty and students very seriously and are willing to act to make sure that those interests are sacred,” says a voice on the recording that the students say is Chamberlin's.

“Anything that the university deems confidential, if it is published or shared, it could violate the university policies,” she said in the recording, adding that that even sharing the information with fellow reporters could break the school’s rules. She told the students to consult a lawyer. When Walker asked what, specifically, the university wanted to keep secret, Chamberlin said, “everything you have should be shown to legal counsel.” 

Although no direct threats were issued, “the strategy was to deliberately create an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty to discourage us from publishing the story,” Editor-in-Chief Walker says. 

Before the meeting, the students say, Dan Bewley, a former reporter and the newspaper’s adviser, alerted them that Chamberlin had called him to say that their questions would probably not lead anywhere good. 

“He had been told, ‘I would hate to see disciplinary action taken against Kyle,’” says Fellin, the managing editor, about the call.

The school denies that students were in danger of being disciplined. “No one threatened Collegian staff in any way,” said Chamberlin in e-mailed comments, adding that the university was not considering disciplinary action against the students. 

The incident Walker and Fellin described in the Collegian article offers a view into the school’s policies about speech it finds offensive. In October, the university suspended for a year George "Trey" Barnett, a senior, denying Barnett the right to get his intended degree in theater and barring him from campus until 2016. Barnett’s husband, not a student at Tulsa, had posted rants on his Facebook page trashing two of Barnett’s theater professors, which the school called  “defamatory, demeaning attacks against faculty and students” in its written decision in the case. Barnett said he had nothing to do with his husband’s tirades, which he admitted were “crude and insulting.” The school disagreed, according to a memorandum on the university's final decision in the case, obtained by the students. 

“Mr. Barnett's response is strikingly void of any indication that he did anything last spring or last summer to prevent further derogatory, inappropriate attacks,” the university said in the written decision. The morning after the students distributed print copies of the paper that bore a front-page story on the proceedings, Tulsa President Steadman Upham sent an e-mail to the school's students and faculty offering a "Correction to Reporting in The Collegian." Upham noted that the Collegian incorrectly assumed that students accused of harassment are entitled to a hearing when they are not, under the school's specific policy regarding that offense. The journalists said in a follow-up story that a separate student conduct policy would have granted a hearing, and they said that the harassment rules repeatedly suggest that the student conduct code applies in such cases.

The Barnett incident shows the school "will punish you if someone else says something they don’t like," says Walker. That, he and Fellin fear, may apply to journalists, too. 

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