Wednesday was April Fool’s Day, and college newspapers across the country aimed to bring some humor to their articles this week. However, not all students found their college newspapers’ holiday issues funny. The United Students Government (USG) at the State University of New York – Buffalo State College, responding to complaints about satirical articles in the student newspaper The Record, went as far as announcing a budget freeze for the paper before backpedaling amidst heavy criticism from students, alumni, and free speech advocates. This was a necessary change in plans, and FIRE hopes campus communities across the country take note: Universities and student governments tasked with distributing mandatory student activity fees may not cut funding for student publications based on their content.
According to The Record, USG’s Executive Vice President initially emailed the newspaper on Wednesday, alerting its staff that its “budget has been frozen.” What’s more, the student government informed The Record that all copies of the April Fool’s Day issue, titled The Wreckard, had to be “removed from campus” by Thursday at 5:00 p.m. The Vice President explained this decision by writing, “It has come to our attention from many students and faculty members that some of the topics discussed in the ‘Wreckard’ satire addition [sic] were offensive to members of Buffalo State and the surrounding community.”
As my colleague Sarah McLaughlin reminded readers yesterday, expression by students at public universities does not lose its First Amendment protection merely because it is controversial or deemed offensive. USG didn’t specify which articles were supposedly worthy of censorship. But FIRE sees nothing in the issue that falls into one of the few, narrowly defined categories of unprotected speech, like incitement to imminent lawless action and obscenity (or anything that comes even remotely close, for that matter).
And as the Supreme Court has held, student activity fees collected for the purpose of funding a diverse range of student groups must be distributed in a content- and viewpoint-neutral manner. FIRE has emphasized this point in the student press context before. In 2012, for example, the University of Memphis committee responsible for allocating student fees reduced funding for its student newspaper by a third, explicitly citing its disapproval with the newspaper’s content. In a FIRE video, then-editor-in-chief of The Daily Helmsman Chelsea Boozer details how student government officials vocally objected to articles about misuse of student funds and convicts living on campus and subsequently took action to cut the paper’s funding by $25,000. Thankfully, after FIRE and organizations like the Student Press Law Center intervened, the Helmsman’s budget was restored.
After swift pushback on social media from alumni, former Record staff, local and national journalists, and free press watchdogs, Buffalo State’s USG posted a statement on its Facebook page yesterday acknowledging that its attempt to censor the newspaper was not consistent with freedom of the press. The Buffalo News reported that Buffalo State Vice President Hal Payne influenced USG’s reversal. Payne released his own statement on the controversy:
While the The Record’s April Fools’ satire edition may have been upsetting to some and certainly pressed the boundaries of humor, I am concerned that the United Students Government’s decision to freeze the paper’s funding may infringe on students’ right to free speech. Because The Record is a recognized student organization, United Students Government provides oversight of the paper, not the college administration. However, I will reach out to the leaders of both organizations in the coming days to encourage a swift resolution.
Payne is correct—USG’s decision did infringe on students’ right to free speech, and it is critical that USG understand it cannot take similarly motivated action against The Record or any other student publication or student group in the future.
USG’s Facebook statement still raises concerns, though. The group writes that it “would like for The Record to be a wonderful platform for communication to our community, as well as making sure students feel comfortable and protected by USG,” and that “will continue on reaching out to The Record for a meeting where a medium can be reached.” But newspapers exist primarily to inform, not to ensure comfort. If anything, they often serve to make readers appropriately uncomfortable, as when the campus community should be alerted to a problem. It is not clear whether USG still hopes to limit what The Record prints, but the newspaper staff is under no obligation to tone itself down at the request of USG or “uncomfortable” students.
The Record has allies over at the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB). Sara Dinatale, editor-in-chief of UB’s independent student newspaper The Spectrum, expressed incredulity today at USG’s delay in acknowledging The Record staff’s First Amendment rights. She articulates what bothers her most:
But the scariest part of this situation is how easy it was for the student government to freeze The Record’s funds. SUNY and universities need to do more to ensure student governments can’t just mess with funding whenever they don’t like what a college paper does.
As Dinatale points out, if student newspapers can raise funding through ad revenue instead of relying on student fees, they may have an easier time covering controversial stories and criticizing those in power at the university without setbacks like The Record’s. Even a temporary obstacle can set a staff on edge and potentially chill student expression.
This probably won’t be the last April Fool’s Day student newspaper edition that inspires retaliation. (It’s certainly not the first, as this recent FIRE case involving the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ student newspaper demonstrates.) As long as April Fool’s censorship remains an annual tradition, FIRE will be here to remind students, professors, and administrators alike that freedom of speech is no joke.