At Butler University, too, the paper is known for reporting on contentious issues involving the administration. In 2013, under McKnown’s leadership, The Butler Collegian won the top student prize from Investigative Reporters and Editors after publishing an article examining the questionable background of Allan Boesak, the man named to lead Butler’s new multi-million-dollar nonprofit center. The result of a three-month investigation, the article shed light on Boesak’s 1999 conviction of theft and fraudulent use of charitable donations in South Africa. Boesak served one year of a three-year term and was pardoned by then-president Thabo Mbeki. Butler administrators, who had ignored Boesak’s criminal record and focused entirely on his anti-apartheid activism, were embarrassed. “The [Collegian] article explained how [Boesak] went from South Africa to Butler’s campus with information that—perhaps needless to say—did not appear in the university’s press release,” said Lovelace, the aforementioned Butler graduate, who spearheaded the project.
Having spent 15 years as a newspaper journalist and five as an investigative producer for a CBS affiliate, McKown is no stranger to conflict. One time, at a press conference about toll roads in 2006, she challenged former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels so boldly that he remembered their exchange years later.
McKown says she expected a certain amount of fallout from the student paper’s assertive coverage, including that of Boesak. Still, she she says was surprised that Butler pushed her out of her advising role. For one thing, the paper had racked up more than 100 state, regional, and national awards during her time as adviser. For another, her contract specified advising duties through the 2016-17 school year. When she told fellow newspaper advisers she was fighting the school’s decision, she received a deluge of encouragement.
“The UAB Office of Student Media supports your fight, Loni!” wrote Marie Sutton, the director of student media at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in an email distributed on a listserv. “We are standing with you.”
Susan Zake, a journalism professor at Kent State University, on the same listserv wrote, “I still find it hard to believe that a bunch of smart people at a university can’t understand what a free student press should look like.”
“When I first was notified about the removal as the adviser to The Butler Collegian, I felt very lonely,” McKown told me. “But the outpouring of support from across the nation—from fellow college media advisers, professional journalists, former students and other Butler Collegian alumni—gave me the strength of community, and made me feel like the battle for student press freedom is stronger than people think.”
Still, grievances like McKown’s can be hard to prove. Few administrators will ever declare themselves enemies of free speech; in almost every case, they insist that the reasons for their actions are more complicated than meets the eye. When I spoke to Edgerton, he was adamant that McKown’s dismissal was a “personnel matter,” adding that he wasn’t at liberty to elaborate on the reasons. “It isn’t an issue of freedom of speech,” he said. “There never has been any interest here in censoring The Butler Collegian and there never will be.”