The majority of Bates College seniors came out to an impromptu graduation ceremony at the quad of the Lewiston college on March 15, 2020. Members of Bates' staff and adjunct faculty are trying to unionize in a contentious fight that put the student newspaper at the center of allegations of censorship that editors reject. Credit: Russ Dillingham / Sun Journal via AP

Last Wednesday around lunchtime, Bates College’s student newspaper published an article. By the weekend, it found itself in the middle of a struggle between the prestigious school and those backing a unionization effort by staff and adjunct faculty.

About an hour after publishing, the college’s spokesperson, Mary Pols, sent an email to The Bates Student’s editors, asking that the story be taken down until inaccuracies could be corrected. Pols then sent a copy of the story with suggestions interspersed with the text.

By the next day, the updated story was longer, with changes including details about a pro-union worker and the college’s benefits package, alongside comments from Bates President Clayton Spencer saying the college would not remain quiet about the unionizing effort, and links to  a question-and-answer site on unionizing.

The article quickly became a focal point for the Bates Educators and Staff Organization, who held it up as an example of censorship and coercion by the Lewiston college that the administration and student journalists reject. It was a harbinger of a contentious labor fight and sparked debate on how freely students can report on a campus with tightly controlled access.

Pols, a former feature writer for the Portland Press Herald, serves as a conduit between the college and administrators whom The Bates Student wants to talk to, said Jackson Elkins, the newspaper’s editor in chief, and Elizabeth LaCroix, the managing editor. Both said they never felt pressured by Pols to make changes or omit details and their revamped article included some — but not all — of the spokesperson’s suggestions.

“We wanted to be certain that the republished article reflected this moment for the College in the most accurate way possible,” LaCroix said.

LaCroix said as much to Amelia Keleher, a former Bates Student editor who graduated last year and is involved in the unionizing effort. Keleher saved the original article, saying she knew changes could occur and members of the union urged her to do so. 

Later, she heard from reporters on the staff about Pols’ request for changes. Both versions were blasted out to Maine reporters on Friday by a pro-union group. That led to articles about the citation, including one in The Intercept that accused Bates of censoring the newspaper. 

Keleher said she understood what her former colleagues were trying to do and regretted it had created backlash against them after some students called for editors to resign. But the addition of the college’s perspective and the knowledge that Pols had requested changes made her and staff feel like the university was flexing control over worker voices.

“They feel like the power dynamics are just continuing to play out,” she said.

The organizing push has already attracted attention after simmering for over a year at Bates. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Bates alumnus and Democrat from Lewiston representing the 2nd Congressional District, has thrown his support behind the effort and asked the college to not interfere. Students demonstrated in early October during a meeting in which college management asked a lawyer about staff protections and how to abide by labor laws.

Perhaps the most controversial change in the article was the paraphrasing of a list of intimidation tactics detailed by Bates professor Francis Eanes, which Elkins said was made because they could not verify his claims. Some deleted details, including managers telling workers they could lose benefits if they unionize, were in a labor complaint filed on Monday.

Pols pushed back against the idea the university leaned on the newspaper, saying her acting as an intermediary between students and sources was no different than relationships with other outlets. She said she had no involvement in the changes beyond suggesting them.

The situation does not spark First Amendment concerns because Bates is a private college, said Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. But he criticized Pols’ request to take the article down and provide suggested changes, saying Bates should recognize a power imbalance with the newspaper reliant on the school for funding.

“[The college] could have instead made this a larger conversation about what might or might not be inaccurate in that story, and some other ways that those inaccuracies can be cleared up, rather than requesting taking down that story entirely or doing anything that could be perceived as a demand by the university,” Silverman said.

Elkins, the editor in chief, conceded that the paper made mistakes, including that the article’s disappearance from the website occurred without explanation until a day later, but he said people should remember they are students as well.

“While I wish we could’ve avoided the commotion that’s come since, when you’re dealing with such a sensitive and serious issue at a small school, mistakes are exacerbated, and when accusations of censorship of a student publication become part of the story, the questions become that much more intense,” he said.