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How not to handle a college newspaper dispute

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Gene Policinski
February 9, 2008

A fiscal fight at Montclair State University in New Jersey between student journalists and the student government has lessons for both sides.


The dispute came about because The Montclarion newspaper staff hired its own attorney to advise it on possible challenges to closed-door meetings of the Student Government Association. The association funds a portion of the newspaper’s annual expenses and claims control over its budget, including spending on legal advice.


The SGA’s president said hiring an outside lawyer by the newspaper staff was unauthorized. He then invoked what he said was the association’s standing authority to freeze “illegal” spending, which resulted in cancellation of the semester’s first edition. He also demanded that the newspaper turn over correspondence between The Montclarion and the attorney.


Amid criticism from national student-press advocates, the SGA legislature voted to restore funding for the newspaper’s printing and office supplies for 30 days to allow time for negotiations with the newspaper staff. Those talks are ongoing.


Those who would support and those who would limit student expression, at Montclair and elsewhere, should go to school on this collision of interests and motives:


--Lesson No. 1: The funding freeze certainly stopped the paper from publishing its print edition, but the real damage was done to the newspaper’s readers—students, faculty and university staff—and to advertisers trying to reach the college community.


--Lesson No. 2: Budget controls over a publication can easily appear to be rooted in censorship or retaliation, not good fiscal practice. Would The Montclarion have had its budgetary hand slapped so severely if the outside legal advice involved an off-campus issue and not a challenge to the SGA itself?


--Lesson No. 3: If the SGA’s freeze did indeed go beyond fiscal concerns in an attempt to block criticism of student leaders, it failed: An online version of the paper continued to appear and reached some readers. And what had been a campus tiff became a national issue. (Attention all would-be censors of student expression!)


--Lesson No. 4: As the Rev. Jerry Falwell and others have put it, “with the shekels come the shackles.” Using student fees to fund student publications (partially or fully) has a nice financial symmetry—but so does the idea that those who dispense the cash control the spending. Therefore it’s essential to distinguish between financial controls over campus social groups and the need for unfettered journalistic decision-making by those in charge of a student publication. After all, the student press shares with its professional brethren a constitutionally rooted role as a watchdog on government.


The best use of that cooling-off period would be to work out an agreement that makes The Montclarion an independent student publication. According to one report, the newspaper already earns two-thirds of its annual operating funds through advertising. Going independent would not be easy—but it would avoid having a non-editor freeze the checkbook, or provide an “allowance” to buy printing services and office supplies, which is where things now stand.


Those who control student fees still would be free to use those funds to pay for a subscription to the newspaper for every student, avoiding cumbersome—and it would appear divisive—budget entanglements. And control of news decisions would be in the hands of news editors, not under the thumb of potential newsmakers.


Montclarion Editor Karl de Vries had it right when he was quoted by the Associated Press as saying the most important result of the 30-day settlement was that “Montclair State University will have a newspaper tomorrow.” Both sides should use what’s left of their negotiation period to set up a system that will function properly for a lot longer.


Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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