Revisiting The Concordian suspension of 1970

For a century, The Concordian has delivered the news to the Concordia community. However, in the exact center of that 100 year history, The Concordian faced its biggest challenge to date: a suspension from the college’s president.

On Dec. 4, 1970, The Concordian published an issue that resulted in the prompt suspension of the newspaper. The suspension lasted for three months, and when the newspaper returned in March, it returned with a new editor. This week marks 50 years since the return of The Concordian in March of 1971.

President Joseph A. Knutson decided to shut down the newspaper after an advertisement for an abortion referral service was published. The advertisement was published three years before access to a safe and legal abortion became constitutionally protected under Roe v. Wade, and sparked controversy, resulting in the suspension of the newspaper and the termination of the editor, Omar Olson. 

Omar Olson | Concordia Cobber 1970

The Minneapolis Star reported on Jan. 7, 1971, that, “Dr. Knutson said that he waited for the Concordia students to protest the ‘raw’ material in their paper, but when they failed to do so, he acted himself.” 

The newspaper was released on Friday, and the doors of the newspaper office were locked by Monday. 

According to the Concordia Archives, Knutson started one of his reasons for discontinuing the paper was “news put in such perspective as to make drugs and sex seem to be the dominant things among Concordia students.” Along with the abortion referral advertisement, that issue included a wire piece with student opinions on marijuana.

In addition to public appearance, Knutson was also concerned about legality, because the college would be held accountable for the student’s publishing, and running this ad could be illegal.  

In 1970, under a Minnesota statute that dates back to 1909, it was illegal to publish advertisements for certain medical procedures, including abortion and other sexually transmitted disease recovery procedures. According to Olson, after the paper was shut down, he contacted the Minnesota Attorney General’s office and talked to a lawyer who told him that the advertisement was not illegal, as it was for an abortion referral service rather than an advertisement for an abortion procedure itself. These legal nuances made no difference in Knutson’s decision to suspend The Concordian.

Several other newspapers published this ad in 1970 and faced similar issues. 

“It was so widely distributed and it ran in so many places. It was a broadcast ad, so it came in a bundle to college papers. It was very common,” Olson said. 

The Echo, the publication of Augsburg College located in Minneapolis, was also shut down for running the same ad as Concordia. Moorhead State University’s newspaper was abolished in 1970 due to a similar ad they had run several times. 

The Concordia Archives reports that the College Press Service identified 25 “overt acts of censorship” against student papers and the shutdowns of two campus radio stations since the start of the 1970 school year. 

In a 1970 interview, Olson said, “a basic American tradition is placed in jeopardy when the right of the newspaper as a free vehicle of expression is abridged.” 

Despite the tension, student publications were likely to start up again. After about three months, The Concordian started publishing again on Mar. 19, 1971. However, Olson was not allowed to take his former position. Of all the student newspapers to face suspension during that time, the Concordia newspaper was the only one to lose an editor. 

“The president violated the Student Rights Document by his unilateral and hasty action. The procedure called for the Student Affairs Committee, which hired the editor, to also remove him or her, or otherwise adjudicate,” Olson said. “It was left for that procedure to be followed and I opted to work within that system.”

Despite the actions against the newspaper, Olson still holds a favorable view of Knutson.

“We were always clear that we loved Pres. Knutson—for building the college and for his irresistible warmth and spirit. We said we just disagreed with him in this matter.

He got hundreds or more things right, but we feel he made a mistake on this one,” said Olson.

While all of the publications eventually started back up again, this series of shutdowns called into question if college publications have full freedom of speech. 

An editorial in the Fergus Falls Daily Journal published on Dec. 10, 1970, argued college newspapers have to “operate in a vacuum, insulated from most of the practical aspects of journalism.” With their primary, limited audience being the student body and funded by their colleges, this editorial claims student newspapers do not exercise the capacities of true journalism.

This opinion remains today about student journalism, and is legally backed by a 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which determined that student newspapers have fewer First Amendment protections than independently-published newspapers. Olson sees the need for more protection of student journalism.

“Universities have been under a great deal of stress, trying to remain financially viable in a digital, globally-competitive, resource-orientated universe. The result has been that universities have put a lot of pressure on student journalists when they are trying to do anything investigative or might temporarily harm the brand of the university,” Olson reflects. “The student press really has to be protected and somehow worked through this built-in pressure that’s exerted on them.”

After the 1970 suspension, The Concordian started publishing under a new editor, Lynn Bruer. Though much has changed about the landscape of journalism over the last 50 years – what is considered taboo, a digital interface, the rise of fake news – The Concordian continues to tell the stories of Concordia students, the community and the world.

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