(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 316-317)
Dr. Brinson continued the long-standing practice of exercising ultimate authority over student publications. Inadvertently, he freed publications of virtually all supervision in a landmark First Amendment dispute. Unlike Dr. Bruce who had easily fired Bray editor Bob Lancaster in 1962, Dr. Brinson who fired two student editors in 1977 ran afoul of new interpretations of students’ constitutional rights. Bray editor Don Johnson in 1976–77 ran an excellent newspaper that featured writing of several student journalists, including Mike McNeill, the Mulerider editor. The paper did not shrink from controversy. Near the end of the second semester, a new journalism instructor who had come from Texas with Dr. Brinson pulled the paper’s front page to kill an article critical of the Student Affairs Committee. Dr. Brinson backed the instructor and fired Johnson and McNeill. The two students, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, brought suit against Dr. Brinson and others. Eventually, SAU settled the case out of court when the school’s lawyers determined a favorable decision was unlikely. In a court-approved consent agreement of July 20, 1981, SAU officials affirmed that the school’s funding of publications gave no right of censorship and that the Bray and the Mulerider were protected forums of free expression. SAU then issued publication guidelines that provided permanent guarantees of student press freedoms. Johnson graduated from SAU in 1977, and McNeill worked as a full-time El Dorado reporter until he completed his degree two years later. Both Johnson and McNeill, like Lancaster, went on to successful careers as journalists, McNeill eventually returning to head his hometown newspaper, Magnolia’s own Banner News.
The free press guidelines probably saved 1984 Bray editor Rodney Lagrone’s academic career. He relied too much on a reporter’s integrity and ran an untrue story that accused SAU football coaches of providing illegal substances to players. Lagrone resigned of his own accord, later became SAU student body president, and earned a degree from Georgetown University law school where he compiled a stellar record. A few Bray editors in later years occasionally permitted articles and columns with offensive language, assured that the consent decree and guidelines afforded considerable leeway.