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Wright State’s Threat to Cut Student Newspaper Funding Places ‘Mission’ Over Constitution

By November 14, 2013

If you are a student at Wright State University—and especially if you are a student journalist—watch out: You might have just been unwittingly enlisted as a member of the university’s public relations corps, tasked with promoting your school’s “mission.”

Administrators at the Ohio public university recently threatened to cut funding to its student newspaper, The Guardian, unless the paper agreed to cease publishing a classified ad from the Alabama-based organization The First Freedom, according to the Student Press Law Center (SPLC).

The administrators’ rationale? The First Freedom is a white supremacist group, and its classified ad, which was scheduled to run for four weeks and sought to recruit students to distribute its tabloid around campus, “is counter to the mission of the university.”

Unfortunately for Wright State administrators and fortunately for anyone who cares about the marketplace of ideas, free expression does not take a back seat to the “mission” or reputation of a public university—nor should it at any institution, public or private, that is devoted to the discovery of truth. In a true marketplace of ideas, views like those presented by The First Freedom will sink or swim on their own merit. The university need not decide the question for everyone.

“The Constitution exists precisely so that opinions and judgments … can be formed, tested, and expressed,” says the Supreme Court. “What the Constitution says is that these judgments are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.”

But we have seen an attitudinal shift away from this ideal on college campuses recently. Universities, no longer merely hosts to ensure “opinions and judgments … can be formed, tested, and expressed,” have begun adopting and enforcing, often with threats of discipline, missions and values altogether separate from the pursuit of truth—missions and values that seem to suggest that some questions have already been answered and no further debate is necessary or welcome.

At Harvard University, the infamous “Class of 2015” pledge asked students to affirm that Harvard is a place “where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.” And at Illinois State University, the Code of Student Conduct tells students that “civility,” “an appreciation of diversity,” and “individual and social responsibility” are “non-negotiable values.”

Now, maybe some, many, or even all students will arrive at the conclusion that kindness is on par with intellectual attainment and The First Freedom’s speech is of little to no value. But for a group of university administrators to say that these questions are no longer open for debate and that all speech within the university community must not conflict with pre-established, mandatory values, is to engage in an anti-intellectualism that limits the scope of inquiry.

Universities are institutions of higher learning—where ideas, both “good” and “bad,” are tested in the hope that truth might be revealed and arguments sharpened. How can that happen if schools plant their flags on various hills of orthodoxy and decree that any ideas counter to those orthodoxies cannot be expressed?

Perhaps colleges like Wright State are concerned that by allowing minority views to be expressed, they might be giving the public the impression that they approve of these opinions. FIRE has heard this argument before, often in the context of political speakers on campus. But unless a university systematically and openly silences dissenting viewpoints (which Wright State is legally not permitted to do), no reasonable person could possibly conclude that all of the disparate speech coming from individuals or groups within the university community is a reflection of the school’s institutional values.

Most schools across the country have both College Republicans and College Democrats groups, both pro-life and pro-choice groups, a Campus Crusade for Christ chapter and a Hillel chapter. Does all the expression these groups engage in carry the imprimatur of the school?

Further, the courts have made clear that if a state institution is going to charter student organizations and use a student fee program to distribute money to them, the recognition and funding distribution procedures must be executed in a viewpoint-neutral manner. “When a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others,” said the Supreme Court in Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (2000).

Wright State may no more forbid The Guardiana registered student organization that receives 25% of its funding from the Office of Student Activities—from publishing a viewpoint than the federal government can censor an opinion published in The New York Times. It is simply outside the university’s power to do so.

More still, the effect of the school’s funding adds to the school’s responsibility to uphold their students’ Constitutional rights. From SPLC’s report:

Student Press Law Center attorney advocate Adam Goldstein said Wright State’s financial support of The Guardian increases rather than alleviates their need to respect students’ First Amendment rights to publish as they see fit. If The Guardian decided to print the ad, it would constitute “retaliatory censorship” if the university stripped the paper of its funding or equipment, which is unconstitutional, he said.

“The university’s funding shouldn’t be used as leverage to regulate the paper’s speech,” Goldstein said.

As universities continue to adopt missions that contain mandatory value judgements and enforce these judgements with discipline, free expression has the potential to be curtailed. Wright State is both morally and legally bound to cease its threats to cut funding to The Guardian and respect the First Amendment.

Image: Newspaper stack – Shutterstock

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