EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of FIRE’s annual “Best of Newsdesk” retrospective, where we search the archives to bring you stories worth a second look. It originally ran January 18.
No news is good news, if you’re The Wesleyan Argus.
That’s the takeaway from a story in the Columbia Journalism Review that looks back on the censorship battles over the last two years at Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts college in Connecticut. Titled “Reporters flocked to a campus controversy but missed its surprising conclusion,” the CJR piece gets everything right—except the assertion that there’s a “conclusion.”
Readers can find an exhaustive review of the fight over the Argus in our earlier coverage, but here’s a brief version: A September 2015 opinion piece in the Argus questioning the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement led to a petition calling for the publication to lose funding until a list of demands were met. The demands included diversity training, dedicated publication space for marginalized groups, and monthly reports on “leadership structure.”
Early in October of 2015, the student government approved moving forward with a study of a proposal to change the Argus’ funding model in a way that could have cut up to $17,000 of the publication’s $30,000 annual budget based on a popular vote of the student body. That potential cut, although only a study at the time, received some adverse media attention and inspired the Argus to look for alternative funding sources, including by soliciting donations.
By March of 2016, the Argus had raised $12,580.32, primarily from alumni who wanted to protect the publication from the student government. That’s when the student government threatened to withdraw funding until the raised money was spent—arguing, without any real basis, that a student group isn’t entitled to have money other than what is allocated by the student government, because other student groups need money, too.
As we explained at the time, the rationale that accepting donations somehow deprived other student groups of money felt pretty hollow considering that the student government itself had its own endowment of $366,000 that wasn’t being allocated to student groups. We also sent a letter to the administration and board of directors, calling on them to reverse any adverse funding decision that might ensue because “Wesleyan bears the moral responsibility to ensure that student media, and student organizations in general, can exist free from the threat of discrimination based on content or viewpoint.”
And from there, nothing interesting seems to have happened, according to CJR. Life went on; the fall 2016 deadline for the study of the funding change to the Argus came and went with no action. All’s quiet on the financial front, as far as anyone can tell.
But as someone who has spent more than his share of time in these foxholes, I assure you that there is no “conclusion.” As the insurance commercial admonishes, “that’s not how this works—that’s not how any of this works.”
Sure, the issue seems quiet now. It seemed quiet after October 2015, too, when nothing changed after the student government passed its proposal. It seemed quiet when the Argus received a safety net of donations. It always seems quiet, just before the next act of censorship.
Student governments have high turnover and short memories. Even administrators—who seem supportive of free speech today—move on and are replaced suddenly in the middle of semesters. And good journalism continues to antagonize and earn new enemies.
There is no “conclusion” when you’re talking about censorship. There’s just “not today.”
And if CJR’s point is that no one covered the lack of an incident of censorship today, well… here, once again, for the record: No news is good news, if you’re the Argus.