West Georgia SGA passes bill to freeze money to student newspaper after publishing anti-Greek column

Student budget committee recommends cutting <i>West Georgian</i> funding by $11,500

GEORGIA -- The editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and a group of students at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton are protesting a series of proposals by the Student Government Association that would cut funding for the paper.

Editor-in-Chief Ellis Smith first heard about budget cuts April 23 when the new student body President Alan Webster proposed a bill that would temporarily freeze funding to the paper. The bill, called "Suspension of 'the West Georgian,'" was passed the day after the newspaper ran Jacob Lovell's column "Join a Frat with Buck Futter, Jr." The opinion piece satirically stereotyped social fraternities and sororities on campus, leading to a vocal backlash from the Greek community.

Although the bill would temporarily cut all funding to the newspaper, Smith became more concerned over the Student Activity Fee Budget Allocation (SAFBA) committee's recommendation to cut the West Georgian funding by $11,500 for fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1.

The budget proposal for next year cuts $7,000 for the newspaper on the grounds that it was allotted for a faculty adviser position. The SAFBA committee said it was against policy to use student fees to pay faculty. The Theater Department also requested money for a staff position and was denied. Smith said the newspaper has been paying a staff adviser for years and could not understand why the budget was cut this year.

However, an additional $4,500 cut from the newspaper's budget was not explained in the committee's documents. In its recommendations to cut funding, SAFBA wrote only "the West Georgian has not been responsive this past year to the needs of students."

Smith filed an open-records request to see all documents pertaining to the proposed cut, but in all the documents received, no explanation is given for the additional $4,500 loss. No minutes were taken at the meeting.

The SAFBA committee is a majority-student board that recommends a budget for use of student activity fee money, totaling over $1.1 million. The group is composed of the student body president and treasurer, four at-large students selected by SGA, and four college staff members -- two as non-voting members -- according to an e-mail received in the records request.

"The previous behavior of key SAFBA committee members, combined with the language they used in their recommendation, clearly points to a First Amendment violation," Smith wrote in an appeal to the vice president.

Smith said issues with the SGA began after previous articles uncovered problems in student government -- including one in spring 2008 that led to a well-known professor being fired -- and riled SGA officials to publicly protest against the West Georgian and attempt to have Smith fired. Rob Kelly, who recently ended his term as president of the SGA, and Treasurer Elizabeth Anderson also are members of a Facebook group called "Students against the biases of The West Georgian," Smith said in his letter.

"If you just play a little game of connect-the-dots, to me it becomes clearer and clearer that it's just a campaign to shut-down speech that they don't agree with," Smith said.

To smooth over relations with Kelly and the previous SGA, Smith offered the group a half page in the weekly newspaper, but the group rarely submitted any content.

"It turns out it's just too hard to contribute to the discussion," Smith said.

Smith had been trying to work "within the process" to resolve the problems between the two groups. The SGA suggested the paper have a Web master, a new paid position that now has to be cut with the decreased funding. He also said the SGA suggested the paper hire a paid adviser -- yet that was the reason given for $7,000 of the funding cut.

SGA President Webster said it was more than just Greeks who were upset by Lovell's column and that problems with the newspaper culminated with the controversial piece. Smith agreed that the newspaper had angered other groups on campus before. Both said the column was "the straw that broke the camel's back."

The story attracted over 200 comments from readers, caused a rise in the paper's online hits from a usual 30,000 to 35,000, and bumped the West Georgian from 65th to 61st on College Publisher's most read student newspapers -- above Arizona State University and Harvard -- according to Smith.

Since the West Georgian published the column, both supporters of Greek life and the student newspaper began campaigns to find a way to squelch the uproar on campus.

The Greek community turned to the SGA, the head of which is a fraternity member. Webster, with help from former President Kelly, drafted the bill to freeze newspaper funding after hearing about the column from another fraternity member at the University of Auburn in Alabama.

"That's when I was like, you know we've got to find some sort of code of ethics or standards about what gets published," Webster said.

The bill recommends that the university take further steps to make an outlet "to extend interesting, informative, accurate and responsible information in a manner that sheds positive light on the University."

"It's very clear to me that their goal is not to contribute to the discussion, but it is to tear down the discussion," Smith said. "It's to remove people's ability to say things they don't agree with. What they want, and they've said this quite openly, is a tool that's going to bring unity and diversity and reflect well on the school -- in other words, a public relations department for the school and for them."

Richard Eells, a student at UWG and not a member of the newspaper, created a group on Facebook called "Save the West Georgian -- SGA must be stopped!" and attracted 497 members in less than a week. Eells said when the group reaches 500 members he would appeal to the university president.

"I am just a concerned student that is voicing the worries [of] a group of students," Eells said in a message.

Smith said Lovell typically wrote opinion pieces that would upset some people, but he continued to publish the columns because he was not going to censor even though he may have disagreed with the viewpoint.

"I only agreed to run the article because I don't censor things based on their opinion," Smith said. "I think it was very entertaining, and I think a lot of people liked it."

Webster said he based his decision to propose the bill on the reactions and comments he was getting from the student body at large.

"Its not that we're saying what they can and cannot publish, but ... it's within our parameters to voice strong student opinion, and student opinion that gets voiced in the West Georgian is most often times a very small sect of general student opinion," Webster said. "The feedback that I was getting from large groups of people, that (the bill) was the proper step at that time. ... We're not trying to infringe on anyone's First Amendment rights. We just want to make sure that they don't publish faulty information."

Smith said although the SGA passed the suspension bill, he does not think the university president will agree to it, but he worries he has not received a response from the university on the issue.

According to Webster, the bill has been passed along to university lawyers before it can be approved, but he hopes the administration will use the summer to come up with a "code" for the newspaper. He claims the paper has, on multiple occasions, printed defamatory and libelous content. although he could not cite specific examples.

"To us, it's not an issue of the First Amendment," Webster said. "It's an issue of just having a code of ethics, conduct, whatever you want to call it. It's just standards about what you put into print."

But Executive Director Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center said the Supreme Court has made it clear that student money cannot be withheld from a group because of a viewpoint.

"It could not be clearer that the newspaper here was singled out for retaliation because some people in student government were stung by the newspaper's coverage and disagreed with editorial judgments about what columns to publish," LoMonte said. "Whether you agree with their taste or not, everything the editors did was protected activity under the First Amendment, and when you hold public money hostage to punish lawful expression, that's a textbook violation of the First Amendment."

Smith agreed that the bill was in direct response to Lovell's opinion.

"I don't know if you could have a more direct response to a piece of content than making it illegal the next day to publish anymore," he said.

With classes out for summer and the paper no longer publishing print editions until the next school year, Smith said he is not so worried about the suspension bill, but rather the bigger question of funding cuts.

After receiving the information regarding the newspaper's budget cut, Smith wrote to the Dean of Students and Vice President Melanie McClellan to address his concerns.

McClellan said she was not aware of what was going on with the West Georgian and SGA, but she agreed to create a task force to review SAFBA policies. McClellan also plans to investigate Smith's charges of First Amendment violations, but could not comment further at the time.

She did say that to her recollection the university president had never gone against the recommendations made by SAFBA, and that the recommendations in question had been approved but had not taken effect.

Smith says the budget cuts will result in little to no pay for student reporters and editors, and possibly a later start date for publication in the semester. He also said he was considering legal options.

"If this goes through and the university doesn't do the right thing, I will be happy to stand in a courtroom with anybody who wants to take this on," he said. "I think it's a ridiculous situation, and I hope they (the university) do the right thing."

Webster said he hopes, with a "code," the newspaper will continue printing next fall. He plans to write the weekly piece for the print edition, as he faces "the task of uniting the student body somehow."

Kelly did not return e-mails for a comment by press time. Campus Center Director Linda Picklesimer, a non-voting member of SAFBA, declined to comment when reached.

Carrollton, Georgia, news, University of West Georgia