Wichita State promises paper will get its funds; task force to continue review this fall

KANSAS -- The student newspaper at Wichita State University will receive its funds as normal in October, but paper staffers remain concerned about a task force formed in response to complaints about the paper's quality.

Sunflower News editors first learned about the task force in late March, as they were preparing to go through the usual student government funding process. SGA adviser Cheryl Adams sent a document to Sunflower Editor in Chief Todd Vogts explaining the Student Fees Committee's concerns about the paper.

Some of the problems cited in the document include "inaccuracy in reporting," "featuring one-sided stories," "advertising other universities" and a "lack of news content." The committee recommended reviewing the paper's structure because it "appears no one is verifying authenticity of material" and "there is a lack of compliance with professional standards," according to the document.

The committee approved funds for the paper's operations next year but said it would withhold the money until a separate task force was appointed and "the task force recommendation is approved by the Student Fees committee."

Sunflower editors initially were concerned that condition meant the paper would not get its money until the task force completed its work. But after the task force was appointed, university President Donald Beggs assured the paper it would receive its funds as normal, along with all other student groups.

The seven-member task force includes two student government officers, two senior administrators, two communication faculty members -- including the director of the communication school -- and the university's general counsel.

The Sunflower was invited to appoint two members to the committee but declined to do so after speaking with Student Press Law Center attorneys. Vogts said the paper did not want to appear to be "condoning or approving" the task force's work by joining the panel.

Vogts, whose term as editor is ending, attended the task force's first meeting as an observer on Monday and said he was somewhat reassured by what he saw. The communication professors seemed to have a "strong voice" on the committee and argued that including some of the committee's content concerns in the review might violate the First Amendment, Vogts said.

Ron Kopita, Wichita State's vice president for campus life and university relations, said he knew from the beginning that some of the Student Fees Committee's concerns might cross the line into areas protected by the First Amendment. Kopita, who appointed the task force but does not serve on it, said the panel now has narrowed its inquiry to focus on evaluating the Sunflower's structure, such as clarifying the role of the publications board that oversees the paper.

But Kopita said the panel's assessment would address other topics as well, such as whether the Sunflower's staff is overstretched and whether the paper's general process of "quality control" is adequate.

Reviewing such topics is not an infringement on the paper's constitutional rights, Kopita said.

"I think it's a First Amendment issue if we start to complain about what they're writing," Kopita said, but "there's nothing that this committee's going to do that's going to intrude on subject matter."

But Adam Goldstein, the SPLC's attorney advocate, said that is too narrow an interpretation of the First Amendment's restrictions on public universities.

"Content is what appears printed on the page," Goldstein said. "It's more than subject matter."

The review panel will meet again in the fall. Kopita said the committee would not force the paper to cooperate with the review but that it would be "counterproductive" not to. And he said it is too early to speculate about what the task force might recommend or whether any of those recommendations might be binding on the Sunflower.

Now that the paper is guaranteed to get its funds for next year, Vogts said his main concern is what role the task force or its recommendations will play the next time the Sunflower goes through the funding process.

"To me it doesn't seem like we're out of the woods yet," Vogts said.

Kansas, news, Sunflower News, Wichita State University