Students censor students
Campus leaders use funds to attack the campus press
The clash between college student newspapers and student governments is an issue all too familiar to many student journalists, as incidents around the country have shown.
But rarely is the conflict taken to the extreme it reached in October at the State University of New York at Plattsburg.
The student government at the SUNY campus attempted to prevent the publishing of the student newspaper, the Cardinal Points, just after midnight on Oct. 9 by suddenly halting payment to the local newspaper that prints the student newspaper.
The student government disapproved of an article in that edition of the newspaper which named a student accused of setting fire to a campus dormitory. They warned the newspaper’s editors that if they attempted to publish the article with the student’s name, the newspaper would lose its student government funding, which pays for the printing of the paper.
The student accused of starting the fire in the dormitory admitted on the record to Cardinal Points reporters that he had started the fire, said the newspaper’s editor in chief, Jennifer Coffee.
“They had no reason to hide his name,” Coffee said. “We verified it, it was fact.”
Student government said printing the student’s name would be a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as the Buckley Amendment, which allows punishment of schools that release student education records.
The local newspaper, which usually is paid to print the student publication, printed the edition in controversy that night despite not being paid for its efforts.
It printed the campus paper free of charge in defense of the students’ First Amendment rights, Coffee said.
The newspaper’s funding was reinstated Oct. 10 on the condition it become an independent newspaper by the beginning of the fall 1998 semester.
That was not a problem with the Cardinal Points staff.
“We’ve always wanted to go independent,” Coffee said. “Now we have an excuse to do it.”
The Cardinal Points plans to gain revenue from advertising and subscription fees once it becomes independent.
Student government officials would not comment on the issue.
Student journalists at Kean University in Union, N.J., faced a similar situation in October when the school’s student council yanked the student newspaper’s funding and seized control of the newspaper.
The proposal passed by the student council to take control of the Independent stated “the Independent is in dire need of a dramatic overhaul.”
The president of the student organization, Eric Parker, said the main problem with the newspaper, and the reason funding was pulled, was its irregularity of distribution and lack of production last year.
Michelle Phillips, former editor of the Independent, said she thinks the pulling of funds was content based.
In the last edition of the Independent, before the student government pulled its funding, an editorial was published exposing the organization’s budget.
The editorial revealed the student executive board took a training trip to New Orleans two weeks before their term was up which cost $10,000 in student funds.
Parker said it was simply the newspaper’s lack of quality that prompted the student council to take over. The newspaper was supposed to issue 19 editions last semester but only issued nine newspapers.
Phillips said unreliable and outdated equipment was to blame for the low number of editions.
The student organization ordered about $10,000 worth of new equipment for the newspaper last year, but it went unused in the student government office for more than a month before the newspaper staff was ever made aware it had arrived, Phillips said.
“They withheld the computers from us,” Phillips said.
The student government started a newsletter, The Observer, to temporarily replace the Independent while the newspaper’s structure was being reworked. The Observer is intended to tell the student government’s side of stories, Parker said.
On Oct. 24, the council conducted its final vote on the issue and gave itself the power to hire and fire the newspaper staff.
Phillips, who is now the editor of an underground newspaper called Not The Independent, said this was blatant censorship.
“We really feel First Amendment rights are being violated,” Phillips said. “If they are choosing the staff and paying the staff, why would they [the staff] say or write anything bad about them?” The Independent staff brought its case before the faculty senate, a group that does not have power over the student organization but is influential on campus, Phillips said. The faculty senate voted unanimously to support the newspaper.
Parker said the student organization does not see this as a First Amendment issue. He said it was simply an issue of improving the paper.
Phillips and some of the former Independent staff continue to publish Not The Independent out of Phillips’ apartment. They also have submitted a proposal to the office of Student Affairs for funding by the way of a separate student activity line item for a new group, the Student Media Group, which will put out its own paper.
At the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the student government passed a resolution in October to voice their disapproval of the hiring policy of the student newspaper, which prohibits student government members from being on staff.
The Daily Campus policy states that members of student government cannot be news or editorial staff writers. The newspaper allows student government members to submit op-ed pieces.
“We don’t allow them to write news just like we wouldn’t let the captain of the baseball team write sports,” said Jason Jakubowski, editor in chief of the newspaper.
For a short time, the newspaper staff feared the student government might recommend that administration pull the 20 percent of its funding the newspaper receives from the university.
However, the two groups were able the reach a compromise before the conflict reached that extreme.
The student government promised to support the newspaper as an independent paper and the newspaper now sets aside one day a week for op-ed pieces by student government members.
Jakubowski said this has not changed the way the newspaper covers student government.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “The coverage has not changed at all.”
reports, Winter 1997-98