At CSU Long Beach, Petition Drive Nearly Results in Firing of Student Editor

May 23, 2011

A drama over press freedom has come to an end at California State University – Long Beach (CSULB) recently, when members of CSULB’s student government thought better of a petition to remove Kevin O’Brien as editor in chief of the Union Weekly, a student fee-funded opinion and humor magazine, on the basis of articles found offensive by members of the CSULB community. 

As the Daily 49er, an independent CSULB publication, wrote of a recent protest against the Union Weekly:

The protest stemmed from two Union Weekly articles. The first was a review critical of the 41st annual Pow Wow American Indian gathering. The article’s author and Union Weekly Campus Editor Noah Kelly apologized for the March 14 article, titled "Pow Wow Wow Yippee Yo Yippy Yay," shortly after its printing. Critics called the piece racist and culturally insensitive. 

The second article was written last semester and titled "How to Get Laid: A Girls’ Guide for Guys." Some argued the piece promoted sexual violence.

We see these kinds of controversies numerous times per year at FIRE, and the cycle that usually results: controversial article published, calls for apology (or punishment) from members of the university community, public airing of the grievances, life moves on. Usually we see a robust answering of "bad" speech with "better" speech. If cooler heads don’t always prevail, the First Amendment generally does. 

At CSULB, though, they have a fully hashed out process for translating grievances against student publications into tangible action against the people that run them. 
I’ll note first that these procedures don’t apply to every student publication on the campus–they seem only to apply to outlets falling under the operational umbrella of the Associated Students, Inc. (ASI, the representative body of the students at CSULB) Media Board. Four media outlets are listed on ASI Student Media’s page–collegeBeat (a television station), Goldmine (a yearbook), and Kbeach Radio, in addition to the Union Weekly. The Union Weekly received roughly $35,000 in student fee funding from ASI for the 2010-2011 academic year.

As the bylaws of the ASI Student Media Board show, the board has the power to remove chief editors from their posts if two-thirds of the eight voting members vote in favor. And, according to the Daily 49er, the board can consider a petition to remove an editor if students can collect 500 signatures supporting the removal. Students collected far more than that–gaining 1,182 signatures supporting O’Brien’s removal from the Union Weekly. The signature drive was led mainly by the American Indian Student Council (AISC) and Justice and Gender Education (JAGed) student groups. Once the signatures were verified by the Dean of Students Office (as if verifying their authenticity was the biggest problem being presented here), the matter proceeded to the Student Media Board for adjudication.

In part, the petition to remove O’Brien read:

As concerned students of Cal State University Long Beach we demand that Kevin O’Brien resign from his position immediately for his failure to ensure that the campus student paper is inclusive for all students, for supporting the marginalization of minorities and women and failing to provide effective oversight of the operating procedure of the Union Weekly.

(My guess is that the charge of "failing to provide effective oversight" stems from O’Brien’s willingness to publish pieces found so offensive by the signatories.)
The brakes were finally applied by the media board on May 6, when the motion failed to get the required majority to vote for removal. (Four of the eight voting members abstained, which is not a particularly ringing endorsement of free speech from them.) The free speech issues raised by the recall petition, however, were of enough concern to ASI Executive Director Richard Haller, that he addressed them to the board at the May 6 hearing. 

As the Daily 49er reported:

He said the petition dealt mostly with the content of the Union Weekly rather than O’Brien’s job performance as editor in chief. Haller noted both the CSU system-wide student disciplinary code and California Education Code Section 66301 as laws that protect free speech. 

"I do legitimately fear, that if you were to proceed with a disciplinary action against [the editor in chief] by recalling him you would be subjecting or exposing Associated Students to legal challenges and court proceedings later on down the road," Haller said. 

Wise words from Haller, and just in time. I hope that they will be of some use to the media board as they consider future complaints against their publications and their role in addressing them. After all, the media board’s bylaws state that, among other things, it is their duty to "insulate student media from political and budgetary constraints on the part of organized interest groups." 

Of course, there’s nothing in itself unreasonable about student media boards having the power to remove editors from their publications if they are clearly derelict in their duties, especially when the Union Weekly is entrusted with $35,000 of student fees. But the objections raised here weren’t due to O’Brien’s basic competency–they were about the content of his publication. 

While the media board did its duty in protecting the rights of the Union Weekly, this episode still raises concerns. Apparently lost on the petitioners is fact that the concept of free speech is, in a sense, anti-democratic–that is, speech should not be subject to the whims of majority sentiment–and for good reason. A system which allows free speech rights to be determined by a show of hands (or gathering of signatures) is a system no student at CSULB, or any American, should want. Fortunately, this time, it wasn’t what they received.    

Schools:  California State University – Long Beach