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R.I. college paper staff locked out of their newsroom

August 27, 2010

RHODE ISLAND -- Student journalists at the Community College of Rhode Island are back in the newsroom for now after student government locked them out earlier this month.

David Gannon, chief executor of The Unfiltered Lens, said Student Government President Manna Muhuri offered to give the office space back in exchange for positive coverage.

"He said, 'if I leave you guys alone, will you leave me alone?'" according to Gannon.

Lens staff members on the Knight Campus found a note on their office door July 27 informing them that they needed to move out by Aug. 6. The same note was given to every student club, and indicated the offices would be cleaned and the locks changed, said Interim Editor in Chief Jim Brady. The locks were changed two days later, and neither the newspaper nor any other group was given any assurance about future use of the space.

The newspaper is one of the only student groups on campus needing regular office access during the summer months, Gannon said.

The lockout prompted a series of meetings and e-mail exchanges with Muhuri and the college's associate vice president for student services, Ron Schertz. Both Brady and Gannon said Muhuri privately offered to let the Lens staff keep its office if the paper would go easy on him.

"The quid pro quo was definitely there," Gannon said.

Muhuri denied making any kind of offer.

Schertz called the allegation "absurd," and said there was no evidence to support it.

"If I would ever hear of any such thing, I would have reacted to that very quickly," Schertz said. "Those kinds of allegations -- you know, even though people have said them, they can't produce any verification that it occurred."

Gannon was issued a single key to the newsroom last week and Schertz said office moves were on hold until there is an opportunity for more discussion. He attributed the problem to a breakdown in the normal communication between clubs and student government.

"The college identifies space on campus and within this building because it's really one big building, [and] says, 'listen, these are student offices and this is student space,'" Schertz said. "And really, we don't get into the nitty gritty of who occupies what space there."

The newspaper staff wants "unfettered access" to the office, meaning the entire editorial board would have keys, Gannon said.

There are six rooms available for 65 clubs, Muhuri said, and he wants them reallocated to the most active groups on campus.

"The thing is, Unfiltered Lens, who was part of last year's student government, kind of let the whole college and the community down by not participating in activities and administration totally lost hope in them," Muhuri said.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said student governments do not have the power to control space in state-owned buildings. He said locking a student newspaper out of its office is not automatically a First Amendment issue, but offering to barter for positive coverage is.

"The key's a good start, there's no doubt about that. [But] it's not resolved until the threat of eviction is removed," Goldstein said.

Decisions about space will be made once the fall semester begins, Muhuri said.

"When school starts, we're going to have open forums for clubs who fit the leadership profile... and that's when we probably start allocating rooms then."

By Brian Schraum, SPLC staff writer

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© 2010 Student Press Law Center

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