Office leases, strings attached

Student government, school officials try to use leases to gain control of newspapers

Student editors at two independent college newspapers found their independence threatened this fall when school officials attempted to insert stipulations into the newspapers’ lease contracts for office space that editors say would violate their free press rights.

At Boston College in Massachusetts, college officials want the university’s student newspaper to sign a lease for office space that would, among other things, require the newspaper to refuse advertisements for abortion or birth-control services and alcohol or tobacco products and to adopt an advisory board.

Editors at the independent newspaper, The Heights, say the lease terms are an attempt by the private Jesuit university to limit their independence.

The Heights has been independent since 1971,” said Nancy Reardon, editor in chief of The Heights. “We cherish our position as a free press above all else, and we are unwilling to sign a lease that would compromise that cherished value.”

The lease proposal would require The Heights to:

• “[A]dopt and comply” with written advertising and editorial policies, including a code of ethics and a grievance procedure; 

• Establish a board of directors made up of Boston College undergraduate students, alumni and faculty members;

• Establish an “active advisory board” made up of Boston College faculty and staff, including at least one administrator;

• Appoint an ombudsman; 

• Reject all ads for “family planning and abortion clinics and similar agencies” and ads for cigarettes and alcoholic beverages;

• Charge the university, its departments and student groups no more than 50 percent of the regular rates charged to “third party advertisers.”

The newspaper’s current lease for its on-campus office expires at the end of 2003. Editors have been negotiating with university officials since September over the terms of a new lease. The newspaper has had an office on campus for at least 30 years. 

Boston College officials did not respond to requests for comment, but Jack Dunn, director of public affairs, told the Boston Globe that the college added the stipulations to the lease because “there have been a lot of complaints [from students and faculty] this year that didn’t exist in previous years” about the newspaper’s fairness and accuracy and about sexually explicit alcohol advertising. Dunn criticized Reardon for speaking to the media about lease negotiations, and he said the assertion that the college was attempting to limit the newspaper’s freedom is “a fictitious account of self-victimization that has no basis in truth.” 

Reardon said the stipulations that she and the editorial board most strongly oppose are the establishment of a faculty advisory board and the 50-percent discount on advertising rates for campus organizations. 

In a letter to the university, the editorial board of The Heights said an advisory board would “infringe on [the newspaper’s] institutional independence and its right to freedom of the press.”

And the mandated discount on advertising rates for university departments and student groups would cut the newspaper’s advertising revenue by 13 percent, Reardon said. 

Reardon said the newspaper has already accomplished or will consider some of the things the lease would require, such as the establishment of a board of directors and an ombudsman, but that for the university to require the newspaper to do anything under the threat of not renewing the lease is a “very slippery slope.”       

Reardon said she remains hopeful that the newspaper and university can work out a compromise. But just in case, the newspaper has contacted an attorney and is prepared to fight to preserve its independence.  

“The 31-member editorial board has agreed that if it came down to accepting the lease as originally proposed, we could not bring ourselves to sign it,” Reardon said. 

A similar lease dispute, now resolved, occurred at the University of California at Berkeley.

Editors of the school newspaper, The Daily Californian, came close to leaving its on-campus offices because student government officials attempted to place language in the newspaper’s lease that editors said violated the First Amendment.

The dispute centered on a code of ethics that a student government committee sought to impose, mandating that The Daily Californian hire a public editor to field community complaints about racial issues. In addition, it would have required that the newspaper institute a “Code of Conduct for News, Editorial and Advertising Departments.”

 Eric Schewe, editor in chief of The Daily Californian, said the student government was attempting to show its disapproval of the newspaper’s past coverage of racial problems on campus.

Daily Californian editors signed a final lease agreement in early November, allowing them to continue leasing office space on campus without the imposition of a conduct code. 

reports, Winter 2003-04