College newspapers are not under attack – but there is the constant threat that they will be.
Wesleyan University’s paper, The Argus, is only the latest example.
Every year instances of censorship surface. According to Frank LoMonte, the director of the Student Press Law Center which defends free speech for student journalists, part of the recent outcropping of issues of student press freedom could be because of a wilting journalism industry.
“What we’re seeing is the convergence of two worrisome trend lines: Colleges are more obsessed with ‘protecting the brand’ than they’ve ever been before, and journalism as an industry is weaker and less able to defend itself than ever before,” LoMonte said.
The former “worrisome trend,” the protection of a college/university brand, was not at work in The Argus situation since it is the students and the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) that are attempting to reduce the paper’s funding due to a controversial op-ed. The latter trend, a national reduction of journalistic influence, could be part and parcel to what happened at The Argus.
This raises a point that discussions of press freedom often miss – the role and skill-level of the newspaper itself.
“That’s the case with newspapers all across the country, as we struggle to move into a digital era, as we try to compete with sites that are born in digital, like Buzzfeed. Newspapers dip in quality because we’re in a very awkward transition phase where we don’t know what to do,” former reporter for the CT Mirror and seventh-semester economics major, Alban Murtishi said.
Marcel Dufresne, an associate professor of journalism at UConn, has been at the university for more than 25 years. He is a former advisor to The Daily Campus, and, while pointing out there have been instances of possible restrictions on editorial content at UConn before, he is cognizant of the freedom of speech the paper enjoys.
“There have been several attempts at UConn to take away student fee money from The Daily Campus,” Dufresne said. “It’s never succeeded, because the university has stood by the concept of freedom of the press. Under previous administrations, unpopular opinions in The Daily Campus were not the cause of defunding the paper. The university has never done that.”
Dufresne is unsure of UConn’s current administration, because, he says, they haven’t really been tested on the issue.
Speaking with The Daily Campus, LoMonte said that student government-led efforts against college newspapers are not uncommon.
“Unfortunately, we probably get half a dozen calls every year from colleges with some variation of this familiar problem: the newspaper has published something the student government association disapproves of, and the paper's funding is put in jeopardy because of it,” LoMonte wrote in an email.
“The wrinkle that's unusual at Wesleyan is that the pressure is bubbling up from the student readership. It's often the case that campus elected officials or administrators hold a publication's funding hostage in retaliation for unflattering news or editorial coverage. It's much less common that the impetus to punish the newspaper originates with the audience.”
The UConn Board of Trustees approves much of the funding for the publication of The Daily Campus. The board authorizes the university and the university authorizes students to publish a newspaper. Daily Campus finances come partly from advertising, and mostly from student fees. The Student Activity and Service Fee Advisory Committee (SFAC) is, according to its website, “charged with reviewing fees on an annual basis to assure transparency, compliance and student involvement.” The SFAC regulates “creation, change or elimination of these student fees” for Tier III organizations. Students in USG, SUBOG, UConnPIRG and administrators and faculty make up the committee.
While The Daily Campus considers itself an independent, student-run newspaper, Dufresne questioned the independence of any paper that does not control its own finances.
“Whoever controls the money controls the paper. I’ve always said The Daily Campus has the potential to be controlled by the administration, because they control the money,” Dufresne said. “If they don’t like what The Daily Campus is doing, they can take the money away…the only way you’re really independent is if you’re financially independent, and you raise your own money.”
The Daily Campus has had difficulties in the past. Dufresne himself spoke at a public gathering in 1994 where students complained about a column regarding race. There were protests outside The Daily Campus building, and a petition was drafted demanding the defunding of the paper. The university considered cutting funding, but ultimately decided against it. Similar to The Argus situation, students wanted more diversity within The Daily Campus at the time.
“You do that (gain diversity) by recruiting, you invite certain people to be columnists, you make an active effort to bring in other voices, and The Daily Campus has tried to do that over the years,” Dufresne said.
Beyond Wesleyan, the Butler University newspaper, The Butler Collegian, was also involved in a censorship battle, but this time, it was with their administration. Loni McKown, nationally-renowned adviser to the student-run newspaper, was inexplicably fired from her capacity as adviser this month after five years in the position. The main reason? She was apparently too entangled in editorial decisions. Days later, McKown’s replacement was named. The chosen replacement was part of Butler University’s public relations staff.
While this decision was quickly reversed in favor of hiring the director of the journalism department at Butler as the paper’s adviser, elements of this story can be found nationwide in the examples of Northern Michigan University, which dealt with pretty much exactly the same situation; Muscatine Community College in Iowa, which pitted student journalists and an adviser against the administration to the point that they sued the school and moved to an alternative publication: and in Delta State University in Mississippi, which literally discontinued the journalism program and completely axed all $10,000 of funding towards the student newspaper.
These occasions are not as severe as one in particular, according to LoMonte.
“Probably the most blatant example in many years is at Fairmont State University in West Virginia, where three faculty advisers in a row have been pushed out of their jobs under pressure from the college administration to make the newspaper more ‘positive’ and less inquisitive,” LoMonte said. “The president and provost actually called in the editors of the paper and told them it would be a waste of time for them to reapply for their jobs because they wanted to take the newspaper in a more favorable direction – right after the paper published a two-part series about toxic mold in the dorms.”
At Wesleyan, the WSA is a financial supporter of The Argus. Whether or not they have good intentions in their resolution in support of a proposal that would cut Argus funding isn’t the issue at hand, LoMonte said.
“The symbolism of what's happening at Wesleyan is bad no matter what practical effect it does or doesn't end up having,” said LoMonte. “If you're the editorial page editor and you know that your budget is hanging in the balance every time you're deciding which column to choose, that can't help but intimidate you into making more timid choices.”
For LoMonte, the many effects of political correctness are also an issue in the case of The Argus.
“I think what we're seeing at Wesleyan is a direct product of what I call the ‘punishment culture’ that's rampant across not just campuses but workplaces as well – the idea that just because someone makes a controversial remark, there must be consequences,” LoMonte said. “We've got to find ways for people who have strong differences of opinion to engage in a civilized debate and go straight to calling for the opposing side to be punished. Once you invite regulators into the speech-policing business, it's like unleashing Frankenstein's monster – it often turns on the creator.”
The Daily Campus could only conceivably be defunded by the higher-ups in the university, and while this isn’t the ideal amount of independence for Dufresne, he recognizes that UConn has had a good record of press freedom. With so many dangers to the vitality of campus newspapers, though, anything can happen, and it usually does.
“No matter what the environment, whether it’s a college campus, or a community or a country, there are always gonna be people who don’t like what you print,” Dufresne said. “If you do a good job, that means you’re accurate, you’re fair, you give people an opportunity to respond, that’s the marketplace that we deal in. As long as the paper is doing that, then they should be allowed to operate.”
Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.