Who’s teaching whom?

Editor’s Intro: The New Year is a time to review and here we revisit how Tulsa Today’s Publisher began in journalism. Later he included stints as a daily reporter (city beat), talk show host, Vision 2025 public information manager and then communications consulting and management. This is what the Columbia Journalism Review, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University published in 1987. The headline: Who’s teaching whom at Tulsa Junior College? Rebecca L. Martin writing for CJR begins:

David Arnett was more interested in business than journalism when, at age thirty-two, he decided to go back to school.

A self-described entrepreneur and conservative Republican, he had suffered a setback when his “Flowers on Call,” a twenty-four-hour ordering service, had failed to bloom during the oil bust in Tulsa. After a stint as a Jeep salesman, he began to pursue a major in business administration last year at Tulsa Junior College.

David Arnett, September 1987 Horizon production office. Photo: CJR Sherry Brown/The Tulsa Tribune

Along the way Arnett took a course in newswriting. He liked journalism so much that he volunteered to edit Horizon, the paper put out by the college’s journalism students. He was appointed to the job even though he had already begun to question restrictions on the newspaper – why, for example, were only 200 copies printed on a campus with a student body of 16,000?

He found other restrictions even more troubling. Horizon was not allowed to print editorials or letters to the editor, and it was distributed only to the journalism students. The administration, it was clear, did not want a real campus newspaper underfoot, and when Arnett broke the rules, such as the one forbidding editorials, he was fired. But Tulsa Junior College officials may have underestimated their opponent.

Arnett says his determination to put some backbone into Horizon was inspired by his discovery that the paper had not always been so tame. In the mid-1970s, it had functioned as a real newspaper, distributed to all 4,000 student at the school at that time.

What sparked the administration to take action against the paper, says former journalism adviser James Tidwell, was a 1976 editorial supporting the creation of a prison work-release center near the downtown campus, now the largest of the junior college’s three campuses. The administration opposed the downtown location and, although the editorial was a mild one, Tidwell says school officials threatened not to renew his contract after it appeared. The threat was not carried out, but administrators subsequently decreed that Horizon was a “laboratory exercise,” not a newspaper, and put in place the restrictions on its content. “It’s just absurd,” says Tidwell, who left the school in 1978 and is now teaching at Eastern Illinois University. “And I’m glad to see it’s coming to a head again. It really took David to do it.”

Dean VanTrease, the school’s executive vice-president, contends that Horizon was never meant to be anything but a way to let journalism students see their work in print: “I don’t think we ever had a student newspaper.” Circulation was cut way down in 1985 because of state budget reductions, he says adding that “a lot [of the papers] were left on the racks.” Alfred M. Philips, president of the junior college, has been reluctant to talk about Horizon, but college officials have argued that students can get information about the school through the school’s own bulletins and pamphlets. The current journalism adviser, M. Rogers McSpadden, insists that Horizon can cover news without limitations, but concedes that the ban of editorials is unfortunate. “I have always advised the administration that we are in violation of the First Amendment,” he says.

David Arnett won the 1987 Scholastic Press Freedom Award from the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.   Photo: CJR Sherry Brown

Last November, when Arnett argued for the right to print more papers, the school cut Horizon’s circulation down to 100. After that, Arnett printed an editorial on freedom of the campus press. He also delivered a thenty-page proposal for a student papers, first to the administration, and later to the school’s board of regents, Tulsa officials, and local media. He was fired in February, and, four weeks later, so was his replacement, Dana Mitchell, who supported his goals.

With the board of regents still cool to his proposals, Arnett began to line up supporters, including the American Civil Liberties Union; the Eastern Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Signa Delta Chi; the student association; and Faculty Forum, a faculty newsletter. Local TV stations and The Tulsa Tribune closely followed the fight. Arnett told the board he would not hesitate to sue if necessary.

But his next move was the boldest – Arnett started his own newspaper, the Independent Student News, which has been loaded with editorials and letters about the Horizon controversy.

Arnett sees the newspaper as temporary, and so does Tulsa investor Richard L. “Dex” Jones III, who agreed to pay half the costs for each edition, $2,000 so far. “It’s one of the worst business investments I’ve ever made,” Jones says with a laugh. Like Arnett, he would like to see the Independent Student News replaced by a school-sponsored paper with the freedom to cover the campus.

David Arnett (back row far left) won the 1988 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in Print Journalism for his effort at TJC for Oklahoma journalism students.

The board refused to discuss the case for some time, citing Arnett’s threat of a lawsuit. Finally, in May, the board’s attorney declared that the school was not in violation of the First Amendment. A few weeks later, however, the board announced that its policy committee would consider the idea of creating a student newspaper.

The Oklahoma legislature entered the fray later in June with a resolution, nonbinding but difficult to ignore, that says the lawmakers “will not tolerate abridgement” of the free-press rights of Oklahoma students. Then, in July, the board said it would poll students to see how much they want a paper. A final decision is expected before the end of the year.

Arnett will be watching closely. He has been putting some of his own money into the Independent Student News and, as the dust begins to settle in Tulsa, he finds himself “broke” but “happy.” He’s thinking about law school, but might stay in journalism “if I have some talent.”

About the author: Rebecca Martin covered higher education for The Tulsa Tribune in 1987.

First Published by the Columbia Journalism Review
Volume XXVI Number 3
September October 1987
Graduate School of Journalism
Columbia University, New York, NY

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