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Duquesne University student government sought “injunction” barring student newspaper from publishing budget

By September 13, 2017

Student government officials at Duquesne University tried — and apparently failed — to prevent their student newspaper from publishing information about the government’s budget.

The Duquesne Duke reports:

Last week, Duquesne University Student Government Association (SGA) sought to prevent The Duke from publishing part of its annual budget that doles out money to student programs and clubs.

The Duke attended a Senate meeting of the SGA, which was open to the Duquesne public, on Aug. 27. At the meeting, the SGA budget for the school year was presented and approved by the SGA Senate.

Two members of the SGA Executive Board confronted Duke staff members in person [following the meeting] for several hours on Wednesday night, asking for The Duke to not print the budgetary information. After Duke staff decided to run the graphic, SGA Executive Board officials, including several who ran on a platform of transparency, filed a request for prior restraint to the University Publications Board just as The Duke was going to print on Aug. 30. The Duke published a pie chart with budgetary information on page A-3 last week.

The letter, addressed to Publications Board Chair and professor of journalism, Margaret Patterson, asked for an “injunction against the Duquesne Duke, preventing them from publishing any information relating to the SGA budget.”

In the letter, SGA officials said that the budget is too “sensitive” to be publicly released.

“All Proprietary Information is sensitive due to the potential for certain information pertaining to individual organizations or line items and said information could be used in ways that violate SGA rules regarding the disclosure and use of budgetary and financial information,” the letter read.

Administrators should be wary of attempts to inhibit student government officials from reporting on the conduct of student governments.

As a private university, Duquesne University isn’t legally required to offer its students freedom of speech, but like most, it does so anyway. Prior restraints like this are an egregious form of censorship — so dangerous that the “chief purpose” of the First Amendment was, as the Supreme Court observed nearly a century ago, to “prevent previous restraints upon publication.” The Court has gone so far as to say that they are tolerable only when the nation is at war.

If a student government is at war, then there are probably bigger problems than the student newspaper reporting information about student government finances.

The actual business conducted during meetings of student governments is often a tedious affair — a mix of parliamentary procedure and wrangling over which organization should get how much money — and students rarely attend these meetings unless they have a compelling reason to be there. But student governments disperse a significant amount of money to student organizations and offer an important channel of communication between students, administrators, and faculty. What student governments do is important and meaningful to their communities.

That means that student journalists play a critical role in that process. Because few students attend more than a meeting or two, if any, journalists are the outsiders who can separate the information wheat from the chaff, apprising the community as to important events that occur during those meetings. This lack of participation by the general student population is precisely why prior restraint is so dangerous.