Student Government vs. Student Newspaper
Fights over funding and content call into question SGA oversight
The saying goes, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Many student journalists say they are not willing to refrain from publishing articles that could upset their student governments. But when that same body is the one that provides some, if not all, of their funding, situations can get messy.
This spring, several college newspapers were forced to face problems that came with their dependence on student government.
The student senate president at Vincennes University in Indiana threatened to cut funding to the school newspaper after editors accused him of encouraging students to steal the paper’s April Fool’s edition. Editors say the theft cost the staff 75 percent of its 2,000 press run.
Tim Turner, sports editor of The Trailblazer, said he saw the student member of the board of trustees carrying bundles of the April Fool’s edition and overheard student senate President Lathon Harney telling other students to confiscate the newspaper.
“I heard the president tell people to take every copy of the special edition of The Trailblazer and throw them in the trash,” Turner said. “I said, ‘Excuse me,’ and he said, ‘Student senate does not appreciate you using our money to print this. We are confiscating every issue of this edition and reviewing it.’”
Harney denied Turner’s allegations, saying he only suggested copies be shown to the board of trustees. However, he said the timing of the edition, released around the same time as parents’ weekend, was unacceptable and that the articles were inappropriate.
The spoof edition included an article that mocked the campus beauty pageant, “Miss VU,” by proposing a “Miss Nude VU” accompanied by blacked-out photos of naked women. Another article detailed a campus Christian organization’s fictitious keg party.
The student trustee could not be reached for comment.
The student senate criticized the edition in a letter sent to university president, the board of trustees and The Trailblazer staff. Harney said the paper’s editors should not have accused student government of confiscating the papers without first investigating.
“They’re targeting the wrong person, one because I didn’t do it and second because I have your budget in my back pocket,” he said. “If you want to be a little kid about the situation, I can be a little kid about the situation, but I can be a little professional kid and hit you where it hurts.”
Evan Wade, editor in chief of The Trailblazer, said although the student senate allocates money for the paper, the funds come from the university. Wade said the student government cannot cut the paper’s funding because it is produced through the journalism department as a lab class and changing department curricula is not under the jurisdiction of student government.
Staff members said they will take legal action unless they are reimbursed for the missing papers, receive a formal apology from those involved in the theft and Harney and the student trustee are removed from office. Both the dean of students and campus police said they are investigating.
Student editors at the State University of New York at Albany learned the rigors of the funding process firsthand when they requested student fees for The College Standard, a fledgling conservative newspaper on campus. In a February meeting, members of the SUNY Central Council voted 14-6 to deny the paper a proposed $350 grant.
Those who voted against the funding said they did so because the paper routinely prints articles that are not factually correct, but editor Scott Barea said the decision was based on the newspaper’s controversial content.
“To not fund a newspaper on campus that has done everything else perfectly fine, done everything legal, solely because you disagree with the articles that investigate the fraud in your [college] government, that’s a clear case of censorship,” Barea said.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that universities which use student fees to fund campus groups must use a system that is viewpoint-neutral, meaning that a student government may not judge fee allocation based on the ideology of an organization. This decision could come in to play if a lawsuit filed in April by Barea against the university can prove the council made its decision based on a dislike of the newspaper’s content.
Jamie MacNamara, Central Council chairperson, said although groups are not often denied funds, it was necessary in this situation.
“[The paper] has a tendency to misquote people,” MacNamara said. “I have read where there have been lies printed in it as well.”
Members of a student newspaper at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, N.Y., resigned their positions this spring due to bad blood with the student government.
Staff members and the adviser of The Overview say they received harassing phone calls and death threats from at least one person affiliated with the Onondaga Student Services Association, the school’s student government, in retaliation for hard-hitting coverage.
Last fall The Overview reported that student government treasurer Jennifer Sutliff was charged with two felonies for stealing five guns and about $700 worth of jewelry from her father’s home.
In November former editor in chief Rachida Essadiq found her car vandalized with the windshield cracked and the driver’s side scratched with a key, but police did not find the perpetrator. Later, student government parliamentarian Casey Sutliff, Jennifer’s brother, allegedly exposed his genitals to the sports editor and threatened to kill Overview staffers.
Kevin Althouse, executive director of the student government, confirmed Essadiq’s allegations of harassment and said that Casey Sutliff was suspended by the college.
“Rachida’s concerns were absolutely legitimate,” Althouse said. “But I don’t think this is systemic. This is one person.”
Essadiq, managing editor Kris Venne, business manager Joe Rothfuss and adviser Laurel Saiz all resigned in January because of the harassment and oversight of the Onondaga Student Services Association, which allocates student activity fees to The Overview and approves its procedure changes.
Last fall, the student government denied Saiz’ recommendation that students applying for the editor in chief position should be required to submit a portfolio of past work and demonstrate aptitude in journalism.
Essadiq said some student government board members are bitter because, in the past, the majority of the newspaper’s staff was student government officers, not journalism students.
“It just became absolutely impossible to produce something productive and try maintain a level head,” Essadiq said. “I just felt like we were trying to do the right things and no matter what we were trying to do these people [the student government] were just kicking us.”
Onondaga Student Services Association President Hillary Robinson-Lovell said until these proposals are worked out, the student government would retain the right to oversee the newspaper and its funding.
“Someone needs to be there overseeing the paper and keeping them accountable to make sure the facts are straight, making sure the paper is the quality that it should be and that students are receiving something worth the student activity money,” Robinson-Lovell said.
In February Onondaga Community College trustees voted to end a contract with the Onondaga Student Services Association, citing contract violations. A new student government will be put in place later this year. Saiz said because the Onondaga Student Services Association is no longer functioning, she is enthusiastic about the idea of rejoining the newspaper.
Another university managed to strike an agreement with its student government, gaining more financial independence and ending any editorial conflict.
The University of North Dakota’s student senate overrode a veto attempt by its president in March and passed a resolution weakening its oversight of the Dakota Student, the university’s student newspaper.
Dakota Student editors requested the resolution after finding it difficult to objectively report on the student senate, which allocates the 25 percent of the newspaper’s funding not gained through advertising. The resolution passed 16-0 in the senate, but was vetoed by senate President Jon Lovseth.
Both Lovseth and the senators who introduced the resolution circulated memos following the veto. Lovseth wrote, “Inevitably, the Dakota Student needs to be responsible to someone and cannot act completely independent. Students, through student government, are the best entity for this responsibility to lay, not administrators through requests from students.”
Presidential vetoes may be overruled if at least two-thirds of senators vote to do so, which they did in a subsequent meeting.
Under the resolution, student activity fees will go directly from the university’s budget office to the Dakota Student. The newspaper will resolve funding questions with the board of student publications rather than the student senate, which had direct financial oversight in the past. Because the publications board answers to the senate, the senate will still authorize the funding annually. Additionally, the senate will no longer oversee the appointment of the newspaper’s editor.
Student editors said the effort to step away from the student government is a proactive measure intended to prevent future senators from trying to influence the newspaper. Brent Bartsch, lead sponsor of the proposal, said the new allocation method will prevent the senate from taking actions such as slashing funding in the middle of the year. He said most of the senators favored the bill because they knew it would streamline the funding process.
“For the student press, it’s so important that they be given a degree of independence so they can cover things objectively, including the student government’s decisions,” Bartsch said.
reports, Spring 2003