The Heat is On
When student government dictates funding, student journalists feel heat - and struggle to retain editorial control
At the University at Buffalo, each student contributes $70 to the student government’s $2 million budget. The editor of the student newspaper, George Zornick, says students have a right to know what they are paying for. That is why, he said, the Spectrum did not shy away from printing articles critical of the student government’s spending habits.
One article said that student government officers had lied about their reasons for pulling funding for a footrace in honor of a student that was training for a marathon when she was raped and killed. Another article criticized over-spending oo the fall campus concert, making a spring campus concert impossible.
But after these articles were printed, Zornick said the student government ended all communication with the student media except via e-mail. Then, Zornick said, the student government decided to cut the paper’s funding.
When the student government cuts media funding in response to critical coverage, critics say student journalists have a hard time resolving this indirect act of censorship.
The Spectrum's annual budget is $260,000, with $30,000 from a subscription fee paid for by the mandatory student activity fee and dispersed by the student government.
In July 2004, Zornick appealed the decision to remove the funding. The student judiciary court ruled the student government’s original budget allocation draft proved that the money was originally allocated to the paper by a referendum, so the funds could not be taken away without another referendum.
Zornick is confident that the student judiciary court’s decision "sets the precedent that they can’t touch that money." He said he now sees the student government as an intermediary rather than a controlling force, and feels comfortable again writing articles criticizing the body and its officers. Zornick said the student government has "cleaned up" its act this year but that the Spectrum has published articles exposing the officers for missing meetings and not following meeting procedure.
Some student governments cut funding not as a reaction to being criticized, but because of other objectives to content. In March 2004, University of North Florida’s Student Government Association cut funding for the student-run Internet radio station because it did not like the music the students played.
Shortly before a senate meeting began, members of the Student Government Association were discussing how they did not like the music and were not happy with the content of the radio station. The conversation was caught on the official tape of the meeting. As a result of this recording, the student judiciary committee found that the Student Government Association's actions were based on the content of the radio station and constituted a First Amendment violation. Michael Kalil, chief justice of the student government judiciary committee, said the decision was easy due to the evidence of the recording.
Student government president Chas Jordan could not be reached for comment.
In 1998, the university proposed a pilot program, implemented in 2000, that funded the radio station directly, rather than funding the Center for Student Media, a student organization that funneled money to the campus radio station, TV station and newspaper, Kalil said. This program gave the student government financial control over the radio station.
Kalil said the student judiciary committee had to deal with two issues, the discrimination against the radio station based on its content, and how the student government should fund the radio station in the future.
As of September 2004, the student government does not have direct control over the funding of the radio station. The student government now funds the Center for Student Media, which directs money to the radio station. Kalil said the radio, television station and newspaper are working to become independent of the student government.
Although the student governments at the University of North Florida and the University at Buffalo remain part of the student newspapers’ funding process, the University of Northern Colorado student newspaper is now independent from the student government. Previously, the Mirror would approach the university’s Student Representative Council during the annual budget allocation process to request funding. Now the paper receives funding through student subscription fees collected by the university.
American Student Government Association consultant Butch Oxendine said a current system of student governments’ involvement with student publications is "inherently flawed." Oxendine compared the student government budget allocation process at these schools to The New York Times going to the U.S. Senate for funding. "You can’t make funding part of content," Oxendine said.
Ideally, Oxendine said, student newspapers would be funded independently of the college. However, since it is hard to raise advertisement revenue, he said, most schools end up funding their papers. He routinely holds workshops to counsel student government officers on how to work better with student newspapers.
"When [student government leaders] have funding authority they get a power complex," Oxendine said. "It’s very common with young leaders who have not been in power."
reports, spectrum, University at Buffalo, University of North Florida, Winter 2004-05