Freedom of the press in question at Wesleyan University

A screenshot of the editorial piece that unleashed a maelstrom of backlash from the student body and in turn slashed funding for The Wesleyan Argus(Screenshot)

Wesleyan University is at a crossroads. 

The Wesleyan Argus, billed as the oldest twice-weekly college newspaper in the country is, according to some, under attack. Others say it is in need of reform. Commentators and Wesleyan students alike have even claimed that the paper is in line for a pay raise.

So what is going on?

It is unclear when the saga began. The Argus published an op-ed entitled “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think.” The writer of the column called the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement ineffectual, and suggested that the effort by BLM activists to bring the murders of black people by police officers to light was actually responsible for recent occurrences of police killings. 

The writer of the column called the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement ineffectual, and suggested that the effort by BLM activists to bring the murders of black people by police officers to light was actually responsible for recent occurrences of police killings.

The column unleashed a backlash against the school paper, which was represented in a petition carrying 167 signatures calling for the student government of Wesleyan – the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) – to defund the paper. Concerned students went as far as saying The Argus supported “institutionalized racism.”

This culminated in a 27-0 WSA vote on a resolution reducing annual funding for The Argus from $30,000 to $13,000. The vote was purely in support of a proposal that may be voted on later this year. This proposal also stipulated that the extra $17,000-a-year for student writing outlets is to be spread between five on-campus publications, and will help for newly-created student media work-study positions. 

The petition created after the controversial op-ed, though, argues that this protest of The Argus has been inevitable – the column just put it over the top. 

“The undersigned agree to boycott The Argus, recognizing that the paper has historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body,” the petition reads. “Most specifically, it neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future.”

It is clear that proponents of the resolution passed by the WSA hope to increase diversity within The Argus. Students were not just angry about the op-ed – they viewed it as primary evidence of a newspaper that is out of touch with their student body. 

Alban Murtishi, former news editor of The Daily Campus, current freelance journalist, reporter for the CT Mirror, and a seventh-semester economics major, believes as much. 

“It was probably an overreaction by the students, and the Wesleyan newspaper had probably become irrelevant,” Murtishi said. 

“It’s easy to get rid of something when it’s already almost dead. I would say it’s the fault of the entire Wesleyan student body. The student body should pay more attention to what’s going on in newspapers, but The Argus should also try and get more in touch with the student body.”

Critics of the reaction to the op-ed and its subsequent consequences in the WSA see this situation as a newspaper being punished for its editorial content. 

“The First Amendment gives the right of free speech to all citizens. It is sacrosanct and doesn’t come with asterisks,” the New Haven Register wrote about Wesleyan in their opinion pages. 

“Crippling a newspaper by leaving it with bare-bones financing for running an unpopular opinion on a controversial issue simply leads to further erosion of the right of free speech,” read the piece.

Responding to the debacle, the co-editor in chiefs of The Argus addressed the student body in an editorial of their own.

“The opinions expressed in the op-ed do not reflect those of The Argus, and we want to affirm that as community members, we stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement,” the piece read. “First and foremost, we apologize for our carelessness in fact-checking. The op-ed cites inaccurate statistics and twists facts.”

This issue with fact-checking was addressed by UConn associate professor of journalism, Marcel Dufresne. He said that student newspapers are learning experiences, while also arguing that it was right for students to be upset over fact-checking, and for them to challenge perceived racism in the op-ed. 

Yet, Dufresne said, “The law protects something called fair comment…opinion is protected under the law, even unpopular opinions.”

The Argus then offered an issue of the paper up to minority members of the student body, calling it a “Black-Out Edition.” Dufresne said that this was the proper response.

What Dufresne was most concerned about, though, was the nature of the answer to the op-ed from the Wesleyan student body, which he called “disturbing.”

“Usually it’s the administration students have to battle, but here the administration and a lot of people in the college were supportive of the students,” Dufresne said. “The Wesleyan student government seems to me to be using pretty heavy-handed tactics to achieve control of the operation of the paper.”

Dufresne is right in saying that the administration defended The Argus, and the negative response to the paper has been driven by students.

“Unfortunately, in addition to sparking conversation, the op-ed also generated calls to punish the newspaper,” Wesleyan President Michael Roth wrote in the Huffington Post. “Protests against newspapers, of course, are also part of free speech. But punishment, if successful, can have a chilling effect on future expression.”

A long, nuanced retrospective on the state of The Argus and Wesleyan University, written by Angus Johnston, an historian and professor of journalism at the City University of New York, contests Dufresne’s characterization. 

Johnston states that the proposal to “defund” the Argus is actually a serious-minded restructuring of publications on-campus. This deals with diversity and “recruitment and retention of writers of color,” as well as requiring The Argus “create new paid positions for writers and editors.”

Johnston believes that the national media reaction has been misguided. For one, The Argus has not been defunded, as the WSA passed only a resolution in support of the aforementioned proposal, not the proposal itself. 

Furthermore, Johnston points out, if The Argus was to digitize its production and meet the restructuring demands in the aforementioned proposal, the paper could still end up with $25,000 in funding – a $5,000 decrease rather than $17,000 – based on a student-determined ranking system of on-campus publications, and The Argus wouldn’t need that money anyway, since its printing costs take up the bulk of its budget. 

“This is not, in short, the apocalypse suggested by the earliest reports. Neither does it appear, on its surface, to be the opening salvo in a WSA war against the paper,” Johnston writes. 

Members of the WSA and authors of the proposal have defended it as a plan that puts people over the paper, since more positions will be paid. 

“Funding for The Wesleyan Argus staff and editors would be increased dramatically under this proposal (granted that The Argus does well in the ranking system) and funding for printing would be decreased,” Alex Garcia, the main author of the proposal, wrote. “In short: people over paper.”

William Richardson, a UConn Student Television (UCTV) reporter and seventh-semester journalism/Africana studies double major, defended press freedom in this instance. 

"I personally don't agree with the columnist's opinion, but just because I don't agree with him, doesn't entitle me to demand that their funds be cut,” Richardson said. “He has a right to say whatever he wants to say, and the student government should at least observe his right to do so."

Dufresne wondered at the structure of The Argus constitution, who their publisher was, and the financial independence of college newspapers. 

“The Argus is supposed to report on student government, and if you give control to somebody you report on to them, when you write stuff they don’t like, they have the ability to come after you, which is what happened here,” Dufresne said. 

“It’s okay to say we have freedom of the press, but are we really free if we don’t control our money? The weakness at Wesleyan is the students [at The Argus] don’t have control over their funds.”

Dufresne also suggested that there may be politics at play in the WSA’s support of the proposal, specifically in the provision that says money that previously belonged to The Argus will be redistributed to other student publications, which are perhaps more literary and less politically-conscious.
 
“Maybe other publications write less critical stuff of the student government, and that’s why this happened,” Dufresne said. “The fact that student government has this kind of control over a college paper - that’s a system that’s bound to create conflict over press freedom.”


Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.