Va. Tech threatens to pull funding from campus newspaper

February 12, 2010

A leader at Virginia Tech’s campus newspaper said the organization will sue in court if the university goes forward with a threat to cut its funding and disrupt its advertising revenues.

The Collegiate Times was notified in writing this week by the Commission on Student Affairs that it may be in violation of the university’s "Principles of Community" for allowing anonymous online comments to be posted to its Web site.

In a letter to Kelly Wolff, general manager of the Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech, dated Feb. 8, commission chairwoman Michelle McLeese laid out a proposal that, if approved, would cut university funding to the paper, which is owned by EMCVT, a legally independent entity.

Despite its independence, the newspaper receives free office space and $70,000 annually from the university, Vice President for Student Affairs Ed Spencer said.

The commission would further seek to ban student organizations from using university funds to buy ads in the CT, the letter stated.

Such a move could cripple or shut down the newspaper, which derives the majority of its revenues from ad sales. The newspaper’s leadership pushed back publicly Thursday.

The move is "completely unconstitutional, as well as a breach of contract," Wolff said.

The dispute centers upon a CT policy that allows online readers to post anonymous comments at collegiatetimes.com. The commission and others who support its proposal have objected to reader postings they characterized as racist or otherwise offensive.

The commission, a 42-member board made up of students, faculty and staff who take up issues of student life, is part of the university’s governance system, Spencer said.

Despite ongoing talks between the commission and the newspaper, CT staff has so far declined to ban anonymous comments from the site, McLeese wrote. Therefore, "individuals and groups are continuing to be victimized verbally by individuals enabled by the commenting system."

Wolff pointed out in a response to McLeese that most newspapers across the country allow readers to post comments anonymously on their Web sites.

The commission has requested another meeting with CT representatives.

But in a response to McLeese, Wolff wrote: "We have advised the Collegiate Times staff to discontinue discussions with CSA members, individually and collectively, on the topic of online comments. … This is no longer a dialogue; it is coercion.

"We will wait to hear what the commission says. … But if they are going to pursue this course of action, then we will take legal action," Wolff said in an interview Thursday.

Defending freedom of speech and freedom of the press is part of the newspaper’s mission, she noted.

But a Tech official says that’s not the point.

"This is not an issue of freedom of the press," Spencer said. "The concern is not the content per se, although some of it is alarming — homophobic and racist and so forth."

The commission simply wants the newspaper to disallow anonymous comments on the Web site, in the same way it rejects anonymous letters to the editor for the print publication, Spencer said.

"The concern is it portrays a campus climate that may not be our campus climate. Anyone from anywhere in the world could be posting them," he said.

If the defunding proposals are ultimately approved, no action could be taken immediately. EMCVT’s contract with the university requires that either party give 24 months notice of cancellation, Spencer said.

One of Tech’s "Principles of Community" states: "We affirm the right of each person to express thoughts and opinions freely. We encourage open expression within a climate of civility, sensitivity, and mutual respect."

The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has joined the fight in support of the newspaper, posting an impassioned defense on its Web site.

"A statement such as [Tech's] ‘Principles of Community’ may not be given binding force against free expression without violating the First Amendment," according to the group’s statement.

"Virginia Tech must act immediately to prevent such violations from happening in the future by publicly and immediately announcing that the ‘Principles of Community’ will never be mandatory and will always be merely aspirational.

"That is what Penn State did last year, and Virginia Tech would do well to follow Penn State’s example — and fast," the statement read.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a conservative advocacy group opposed to affirmative action and diversity initiatives on colleges campuses. In April, the group objected to discussion of diversity policies that might have affected employment decisions at Tech.

The university ultimately scrapped the initiative.

To see Virginia Tech’s "Principles of Community," go to tinyurl.com/ygez27v

Schools: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Cases: Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech Threatens Student Newspaper’s Future over Protected Anonymous Comments on Its Own Website