Victory for Freedom of the Press at University of West Georgia: FIRE Turns Content-Based Newspaper Censorship into Funding Increase

By on July 15, 2009

In yesterday’s press release, FIRE reports that after subjecting it to multiple content-based retaliatory actions, including budget cuts and a proposed suspension of funding, The University of West Georgia (UWG) has restored and increased funding to its student newspaper, The West Georgian. UWG thus has reaffirmed the university’s commitment to free speech and freedom of the press. After FIRE intervened on the paper’s behalf, The West Georgian not only saw its funding restored but also received $3,600 of new funds it had requested for the coming academic year.

The West Georgian, like many campus clubs, has traditionally been funded in part by student activity fee funds allocated by the Student Activity Fee Budget Allocation Committee (SAFBA), which includes both students and university staff. Over the past year, the paper has frequently reported on accusations of Student Government Association (SGA) corruption. On March 25, 2009, for instance, Editor-in-Chief Ellis Smith reported that the SGA’s year "was marred by accusations of corruption, organizational incest and racializing the student body." The West Georgian‘s problems with the SGA and SAFBA (which officially includes both the SGA President and SGA Treasurer), escalated shortly thereafter.

According to an April 9, 2009, e-mail sent by Campus Center Director Linda Picklesimer, SAFBA cut $4,500 from the paper’s 2009–2010 budget. SAFBA was remarkably frank in admitting to its viewpoint-based discrimination, saying that committee members "felt that the West Georgian [sic] has not been responsive this past year to the needs of the students." In addition, SAFBA granted none of the paper’s requests for additional funds.

Then, on April 22, the paper printed a satire of fraternity life titled "Join a Frat with Buck Futter, Jr.: Join a Frat, Key a Car." That day, new SGA President James Alan Webster authored a bill for "Suspension of ‘The West Georgian,’" designed to freeze its funding "due to overwhelming public opinion of the adverse [e]ffects of published material on the subjects of diversity, unity, and general welfare of the student body." According to an April 29 story in The West Georgian, this bill passed on April 23.

FIRE wrote UWG President Beheruz N. Sethna on May 11, pointing out that funding cuts or any punishment of the newspaper on the basis of content are unconstitutional infringements on freedom of the press, a liberty protected by the First Amendment, by which UWG is bound. "The funds of The West Georgian cannot be withdrawn when SAFBA or the SGA finds its speech disagreeable," we wrote.

On May 20, UWG responded to FIRE, promising to investigate SAFBA’s actions. On June 1, UWG Vice President for Student Affairs Melanie McClellan notified the paper via e-mail that she was asking SAFBA to rehear the paper’s budget request without reference to the paper’s content. "[I]t does appear that for some members of the committee, their decision was ‘content-motivated,’" she wrote. "In the hearing we convene this summer, we will instruct them to not consider their personal opinions about content in making their recommendations."

On June 29, Smith was informed by e-mail that SAFBA had decided that the paper’s budget would not be cut by $4,500 and that it would receive $3,600 for additional requests that now were approved. ($500 was subtracted from the budget for legitimate reasons unrelated to censorship.) In total, The West Georgian received $7,600 more funding after FIRE reminded UWG of its duty to evaluate The West Georgian‘s application in a constitutional, viewpoint-neutral manner. That $7,600 is a huge amount for the paper, whose total 2009–2010 allocation is now $42,650. The University of West Georgia is to be commended for quickly correcting its error and making sure that the student government’s idea about freezing the group’s funds never comes to pass. FIRE will continue to monitor the situation at UWG to ensure that freedom of the press remains strong on campus.

Let UWG President Beheruz N. Sethna know what you think by contacting him at bsethna@westga.edu or at 678-839-6442.

Schools: University of West Georgia