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U. of Southern Maine newspaper wins vote to preserve financial independence
Student senate had attempted to seize control over finances of all college media
April 30, 2002

MAINE -- Freedom of the press won out over student leaders at the University of Southern Maine as the student body overwhelmingly rejected a referendum earlier this month to keep the student newspaper, The Free Press, independent.

Students voted 468-88 against dissolving the Student Communications Board, a margin of 84 percent to 16 percent, thwarting the student senate's plans to gain greater control of the university's media entities.

"The results make it clear to me that students understand that student government shouldn't have direct control of student media," editor Steve Peoples said.

The Student Communications Board was established as a buffer organization, Peoples said, so that the student senate could not take control. It oversees The Free Press and other media entities' finances. A number of university administrators, print and broadcast professionals and students serve on the board.

The debate over whether to dissolve the organization has been a long-standing one. Senators recently complained about the board's inefficiency and unproductiveness and lack of student representation.

"We've had trouble with the SCB," senate chairwoman Marcy Muller said. "They meet infrequently and they haven't been providing financial oversight of our media entities."

Muller said senators were particularly disappointed in advertising revenue losses incurred by The Free Press. The newspaper had taken steps earlier in April to address the matter.

"It should be the SCB's job to recognize the problem and address that issue, but they haven't," Muller said. By passing the referendum, the senate would have gained control of The Free Press' finances.

"We're really happy students understood what was at stake," Peoples said. "It's about freedom of the press. They didn't get it confused with what the senate was trying to say."

Changes to the board's composition were recently made, making room for more students with voting power and revising the board's constitution, Muller said, appeasing the senate to some extent.

In a recent development, the senate filed a motion April 19 to withhold paychecks to The Free Press, citing a violation of university policy during the referendum. Peoples and his staff had put fliers on cars the day before the referendum to inform the student body of the upcoming vote.

"It basically comes down to a small senate leadership that really hates the paper," he said. "I had no clue it was against university policy [to distribute the fliers] but once the police called me, I stopped," he said of the fliers.

He recalled the exchange being friendly and did not think much of it.

"We won in a landslide," Peoples said. "Instead of being grown-up about it, they're resorting to childish tactics like holding our paychecks."

The Free Press printed its last edition of the year earlier this week.

"It's been a long year," Peoples exclaimed, who was editor when the paper had issues stolen on two back-to-back occasions in the fall semester. "I'm definitely looking forward to some down time."

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© 2002 Student Press Law Center

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