Behind the Scenes at UCSD: ‘Guardian’ Shows the Lengths Student Government Went to Gain Control of Media

By March 12, 2010

After three weeks of heated debate at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), FIRE announced yesterday that the Associated Students of UCSD (ASUCSD) has finally restored funding to the 33 student media organizations whose quarterly funding was frozen by ASUCSD President Utsav Gupta following the utterance of a racial slur on UCSD’s student-run television station.

The UCSD student newspaper The Guardian points out that, according to the Standing Rules of the ASUCSD, the governing body was required to do so:

According to the A.S. Standing Rules, a funding freeze is automatically lifted by Wednesday of Week 10 if the council doesn’t pass legislation that counters that rule. By default, council returned to funding media organizations with the same system as before.

But as The Guardian points out as well, it was a fight to the finish; its editorial board describes the scene of Wednesday’s ASUCSD meeting as "mayhem." The California Review‘s Alec Weisman has posted video footage of the entire meeting, which backs up The Guardian‘s assertion.

But for a principled stand by a majority of the ASUCSD, Wednesday night’s proceedings could have resulted in a drastic reduction of the rights of UCSD’s student media organizations and the consolidation of all power over their funding into the hands of one ASUCSD member. Fortunately, the AS Council shot down this option, put forth by ASUCSD Vice President of Finance and Resources Peter Benesch, who stood to gain near-total control over the student media had it passed. Benesch himself describes his proposal as such:

"Essentially, this idea supposes that we will close the open forum where everyone can come and ask for money and we have to distribute in a viewpoint-neutral manner, and move to a model where the A.S. will have to provide a large amount of funding through advertising initiatives," Benesch said.

A writer for The Guardian put it better:

VP of Finance and Resources Peter Benesch said the heart of democracy is the ability to choose whose voice is heard over others.

Yikes. Making matters worse, whether or not a media organization would receive funding would depend on its adherence to UCSD’s Principles of Communityessentially giving disciplinary powers to what should be an aspirational set of requirements. We pointed out the dangers of this in our February 23 letter to UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox:

Any determination by you or your administration that the Principles of Community are not merely aspirational, but rather comprise mandatory beliefs, attitudes, and demeanors, would unquestionably violate the First Amendment. For example, the Principles of Community state that UCSD is "committed to the highest standards of civility and decency toward all." As a statement of institutional values, without any possibility of official enforcement, this moral code is perfectly acceptable. But if this commitment to "civility and decency toward all" were to constitute required behavior, subject to punishment if not observed, then UCSD would be violating the First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience of its students.

Unfortunately, Benesch’s proposal had its adherents, among them Senator Alyssa Wing, who stated that "[w]e’ve really been urged to do something to uphold the Principles of Community." (By whom, I wonder?) Student Regent delegate Jesse Cheng’s advocacy for Benesch’s proposal was similarly misguided:

"We stand for this protocol because this issue is an issue of diversity and not really an issue of free speech and even less an issue of the Constitution," Cheng said. "If it does come down to legality, it’s the Supreme Court’s responsibility … you don’t have to worry about that here."

Legality is the Supreme Court’s responsibility, according to the "Student Regent?" Double yikes.

An "opt-out" model was also considered, which would have allowed UCSD students to withhold a portion of their mandatory student activity fees from funding certain groups on personal moral grounds. One student advocated for such a model as "empowering students to make a decision with how the campus is run."

Asked for comment by The Guardian, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties Legal Director David Blair-Loy called both proposals unacceptable:

"There are numerous student orgs that engage in all forms of protected speech that aren’t print," Blair-Loy said. "A.S. has funded many forms of controversial speech, and they can’t treat student press differently from the way they treat other student orgs. The First Amendment doesn’t just protect freedom of speech, it protects freedom of the press."

He said that these two proposed systems violate Section 61.13 of the UC Regents policy, which states that student government must provide funding on a viewpoint-neutral basis.

"I never say preliminarily that I will sue before I do, but if A.S. adopts either of these options, their chance of being litigated will increase exponentially," Blair-Loy said.

Aside from the unconstitutionality of these proposals, especially Benesch’s self-aggrandizing "government speech" proposal, The Guardian‘s editorial board suggests that Benesch and Gupta were dishonest in their pursuit of this oppressive policy, and worked behind the back of the committee they had formed to consider possible revisions to the provisions for the funding of student media organizations. The committee, which included Kris Gregorian, Editor in Chief of The Koalathe controversial satirical paper at the center of the calls for censorshipwas resistant to such drastic measures, and didn’t endorse either solution. The committee also did not put forth any proposed legislation of its own at the meeting.

Here’s how the The Guardian‘s editorial board describes the effort:

Which now looks suspiciously like a scheme, as everyone appointed to the committee had a similar stance: All were generally unwilling to recommend any funding model with content bias. So committee members including Koala Editor in Chief Kris Gregorian and very vocal Sixth College Senator John Condello, a presidential candidate for spring let their guard down, thinking they had this one in the bag. Gupta fooled them momentarily, moping around like a defeated servant of the people. He and partner-in-crime Vice President of Finance and Resources Peter Benesch stood by dopely while the rest of the committee trumpeted no-bars content-neutral funding, then wasted a week making friends and out-articulating each other on exactly the same points.

Gupta and Benesch were the odd ones out. They advocated an unpopular "government speech model" that would allow the council to fund only publications that aligned with its principles. Gupta assured the committee it shouldn’t bother with PowerPoints, and would only have to present a casual recommendation to the council.

The committee didn’t even bother to take an official vote on its stance, too busy waxing starstruck by Gregorian and drooling over the Bill of Rights. Condello literally set his feet up on the table during their final get-together (really more a wine garden than a meeting). So imagine the cool kids’ surprise when, at last night’s official media-funding presentation, Benesch whipped out the PowerPointed legislation for a government speech model hoping to charm the council with nicely packaged research he had kept under wraps from the estranged committee.

In such a chaotic environment, with so many emotional students begging for action, there was the danger that councilmembers would join Gupta and Benesch under the pressure. But Benesch’s model was obviously terrible: Basically, every single newspaper would exist within the overly sensitive ideals of A.S.. Every newspaper would be an A.S. newspaper. Fortunately, that red flag flew above the mayhem, and the ‘Yes’ vote didn’t wildfire off the duo’s arson.

Gupta, of course, dismissed out of hand the possibility of any shenanigans on their part, calling the protests "scare tactics used by the majority to attempt to silence the minority." He went on to insist that the ASUCSD was a "moderate" body that would "continue to substantially fund media organizations." I assume, given his on-the-record statements, that "substantially" is a euphemism for "every publication except those that print content of which we disapprove."

Nice try, guys.

As I mentioned in the opener, it was in some ways a foregone conclusion that UCSD students would wake up on Thursday morning with some form of media rights restored; being either the (perfectly fine) status quo or Gupta and Benesch’s nuclear option, which would have made a mockery of the Constitution and made nearly certain a lawsuit against the university. But only one of those resolutions would have been satisfactory from the point of view of FIRE, the ACLU-SD, and the First Amendment. We’re pleased freedom of speech won out.

So if UCSD’s students think things have simply reverted to business as usual, I advise them to pick up the nearest copy of The Guardian to see just how close that came to not being the caseand I urge them to be vigilant regarding the possibility of future efforts to change the funding structure of their student media.

Schools: University of California, San Diego