Virginia Tech Threatens Student Newspaper’s Future Because it Allows Anonymous Online Comments

By February 11, 2010

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University‘s (Virginia Tech’s) Commission on Student Affairs has threatened the future of its independent student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, because the newspaper allows “irresponsible and inappropriate”—wait for it—anonymous comments on its own website. Virginia Tech contends that allowing anonymous comments “counter[s] the Principles of Community,” a set of ideological rules that, applied in this way, violate the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

According to a February 8, 2010, letter from Michelle McLeese, Chair, Commission on Student Affairs, to the Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech, Inc. (EMCVT)—the organization that oversees the Collegiate Times and six other campus groups, under contract with the university:

The Commission has now decided to take action through the governance system. Although it is true EMCVT is not directly affiliated with the University for legal reasons, it still retains some benefits from the cooperation of the University. One such benefit is some financial assistance received annually from VT; this contract is currently up for renewal. The Commission has enacted a verbal resolution to request Dr. Sims’ office not renew said financial contract with EMCVT until the Commission has resolved its discontent with the CT and its online commenting system effective immediately. In addition, the Commission discussed (and will decide at its February 18, 2010 meeting), the option of passing a verbal resolution that would immediately enact a policy with the Budget Boards at Virginia Tech to disqualify any funding requested to pay for advertising through the CT by student organizations.

In a response circulated this afternoon, EMCVT is hitting back hard in protection of students’ First Amendment rights:

Both editors-in-chief, after considering many different points of view, decided to maintain anonymous commenting, just as a wealth of newspapers across the country have done. In addition to listening to different points of view, the editors also surveyed practices at professional and college news media, learned more about media law and debated the relationships among free speech, anonymity and democracy. It was an outstanding learning experience, one that advisers to student journalists appreciate.

But this is no longer a dialogue; it is coercion. [...]

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Until the University formed EMCVT in 1997, the student media groups were advised by UUSA staff and governed under the umbrella of the Student Media Board of Virginia Tech. The Collegiate Times is only one of seven registered student organizations (RSOs) advised under the umbrella of the Student Media Board’s successor, EMCVT. The others are the Bugle Yearbook, College Media Solutions, Silhouette literary and art magazine, Student Publications Photo Staff, VTTV Channel 33 and WUVT 90.7 FM. Among other things, the Relationship Agreement states the University’s historical relationship and rationale for affiliation with the student media organizations, establishes their RSO status, defines their editorial independence and provides the same support for student media activities, advising and administration as existed on average during the years 1993-94 through 1996-97.

To discontinue the Relationship Agreement with EMCVT would be to take apart the institutional structure of all of these student media organizations. [...]

Certainly, under these circumstances, it would garner significant national attention for Virginia Tech to dismantle all of student media at the University in an attempt to control content at the student newspaper.

[...]

Your letter referenced EMCVT’s Relationship Agreement with the University by saying that “this contract is currently up for renewal.” That is wrong. The Agreement (paragraph 3) requires 24-month notice to rescind or to begin renegotiations of it, and EMCVT has neither given nor received such notice.

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The Relationship Agreement (Paragraph 6) states “Except through its seats on the governing board of EMCVT or to the extent permitted by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Virginia Tech will not seek to assert editorial control over EMCVT publications.”

It is unfortunate and surprising that the members of CSA apparently have not been advised that a resolution “to request Dr. [Guy] Sims’ office not renew said financial contract with EMCVT until the Commission has resolved its discontent with the CT and its online commenting system effective immediately” is a clear violation of the University’s binding legal agreement not to assert control over editorial content, as is the pending resolution also referenced in the February 8 letter to advise Budget Board to disallow any student organization funding for Collegiate Times advertising.

[...]

Both courses of action proposed by CSA are also very clear violations of established First Amendment case law. They consist of a governmental body such as CSA or Budget Board attempting to restrict funding, legal advertising or other resources as punishment for student media content with which it disagrees.

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The letter threatening to punish EMCVT for apparently failing to take the “right” stance with respect to Principles of Community – which are not a part of the Relationship Agreement – is perhaps the clearest case of threatened viewpoint discrimination imaginable.

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EMCVT demands that CSA rescind the “verbal resolution” referenced in the February 8 letter and cease all attempts to assert control over the editorial content decisions of the student editors of the Collegiate Times. Should CSA continue to pursue this violation of students’ First Amendment rights, EMCVT will commence appropriate legal action against CSA and its individual members.

The communication linked above also cites additional evidence that Virginia Tech is acting because of content-based concerns, which is plainly unconstitutional. Virginia Tech, after all, is a public university bound by the First Amendment, although it seems that Virginia Tech has little interest in acknowledging this fact. And as EMCVT suggests above, anonymous speech has a very important place in our democracy, a place it has had since the founding of our nation.

A statement such as the “Principles of Community” may not be given binding force against free expression without violating the First Amendment, as we have pointed out many times. 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.

It looks like EMCVT has the situation under control. Woe be to Virginia Tech for yet another violation of the First Amendment!

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