EMMITSBURG -- Mount St. Mary's College, a Catholic school in the placid hills of Frederick County, finds itself embroiled in a constitutional debate -- not over freedom of religion, but over freedom of the press.
In February, college officials sent a letter of reprimand to William M. Lawbaugh, faculty adviser to the student newspaper the Mountain Echo. Lawbaugh was told his expected pay raise of $3,800 would be withheld until he proved he would "serve the college as a responsible teacher of journalism."
To Lawbaugh, it was a not-so-subtle effort to punish him for several items that ran in the biweekly paper that struck some college officials and alumni as lewd or inflammatory. One was a list of "top 10 pickup lines" (including "Hi! My name is Milk, and I can do your body good.") Another was an advertisement that attacked Holocaust survivors and scholars.
Legal experts and student newspaper advocates view Lawbaugh's case as a pivotal test, an example of a trend in which colleges are realizing new avenues to censor content.
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., a nonprofit that supports college journalists, said institutions are learning they can force out advisers, ostensibly for peripheral reasons, then bring in new ones who teach students to write stories more favorable to the college.
"A smart, clever school can cover its tracks," Goodman said, adding that once a new adviser is in place, "there will be no negative coverage of the school no matter how justified, no serious reporting and the skills students gain will be diminished."
Carol Hinds, the Mount St. Mary's provost who wrote the letter to Lawbaugh, denies it was an attempt to censor.
Rather, she said, officials were angry at Lawbaugh for letting Echo staff members pay themselves out of advertising revenue. The practice is common, but Hinds said it had not been approved by Mount St. Mary's.
"This has been blown way out of proportion," she said. "No one has told them they can't print anything."
Lawbaugh plans to file a lawsuit against the college -- which enrolls 1,354 undergraduates -- asking for reinstatement of his raise, for the letter to be removed from his file, and for a promise that college officials will back off. The Echo, he said, has not been popular among administrators since it ran an article three years ago about the college president taking a medication that helped him lose more than 150 pounds. The paper ran before-and-after photos.
"It was accurate, it was fair, and it was embarrassing," Lawbaugh said.
The reprimand has had a "chilling effect" on the Echo's staff of 30 students, he said, who are fearful that if they run tough stories, the college will take it out on their adviser.
"They would like to see me gone," Lawbaugh said of the college administrators. "And they'll bring in somebody -- maybe a nun -- to red-line all of the stories and censor all the pictures with cleavage and stuff like that."
Lawbaugh, who has spent 14 years at the college and is president of the Society for Collegiate Journalists, appealed the reprimand to Mount St. Mary's President George R. Houston, who responded with a letter accusing Lawbaugh of a "lack of leadership."
"The poor quality of some of the issues of the Echo leads one to wonder what our student journalists are learning," Houston wrote.
According to Goodman, courts usually side with college journalists and their advisers in cases at public universities, saying the First Amendment clearly prohibits censorship.
At private schools, Goodman said, courts often look at whether schools entered into contractual agreements with publications that established editorial freedom.
Lawbaugh said the school has always abided by a code of ethics published by the College Media Advisers Inc., which states that "student media must be free from all forms of external interference designed to regulate its content."
Hinds said the college never adopted the code of ethics.
The Echo, subsidized by the college, has seen its annual budget cut from $10,000 to $3,800 in the past four years, said Lawbaugh.
Hinds defended the reductions, saying many campus budgets have been cut.