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UPDATED: FIRE Writes Wesleyan Student Assembly in Defense of ‘The Wesleyan Argus’

By October 9, 2015

If you’ve been following the controversy at Wesleyan University that erupted after The Wesleyan Argus student newspaper published student and staff writer Bryan Stascavage’s op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement, then you know the Argus’ staff was met with a petition from offended students demanding the paper be punished. This Sunday, the Argus’ staff will learn whether the petition succeeded and whether it could lose a significant portion of its funding.

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) reports that the paper could lose over half of its $30,000 budget, a cut proposed during the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s (WSA’s) last meeting:

The resolution, which surfaced at the Sunday Wesleyan Student Assembly Senate meeting, would cull up to $17,000 from The Argus’ printing budget of about $30,000 and use it to fund work-study positions at the top campus publications of students’ choice, Stascavage said. The work-study positions would be aimed at increasing diversity in the campus’ student publications, which are predominantly white. The resolution could not be found online.

Creating work-study positions at the Argus was one of the student protesters’ original demands, but they also had harsher demands, including calls to defund the Argus until it met standards of diversity and inclusion. Stascavage said he worries the new resolution’s stipulations could still impose a chilling effect on opinion pieces in the paper.

SPLC also states that students supporting the Argus’ defunding “maintain that the issue is one of diversity, not of censorship.”

FIRE wholeheartedly disagrees, and we believe that threats against the Argus’ funding are threats against a free student press at Wesleyan University. That’s why we’re writing today to the WSA’s president and leadership board to remind them of their obligation to uphold the expressive rights that are guaranteed, under university policy, to Wesleyan students and student press. We wrote in our letter:

As a private institution, Wesleyan is not bound by the First Amendment or the Supreme Court’s rulings. But the university makes numerous clear commitments to freedom of expression, which the WSA, acting as Wesleyan’s agent in distributing funds collected through mandatory student activity fees, is obligated to uphold. The preamble to Wesleyan’s Joint Statement on the Rights and Freedoms of Students, for instance, states:

Academic institutions exist for the transmission of knowledge, the pursuit of truth, the development of students, and the general well-being of society. Free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the attainment of these goals.

Wesleyan’s current student handbook further states:

In accordance . . .  with the ideals of academic freedom, every member of the Wesleyan community should feel that he or she can enter into controversy without fear of being silenced or constrained. This community’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas and pursuit of knowledge requires a wide range of protections for speech and expression, even when noxious or offensive.

The WSA and Wesleyan students have numerous options available to foster the expression of more viewpoints on campus. They can achieve this by publishing op-eds in the Argus or joining its writing staff, or by starting their own newspapers or magazines, to name just a few. They cannot and must not, however, punish the Argus for publishing views that offend some in the campus community. As FIRE explained in our letter,

Defunding the Argus either in part or in full due to student opposition to its content stands indirect opposition to these admirable commitments to free expression. The WSA must not condition the funding it gives to the Argus—or to any student organization at Wesleyan—on the popularity of the opinions expressed by its writers. To do so would undermine freedom of expression at Wesleyan, make a mockery of journalistic freedom on its campus, and fail the WSA’s responsibility to ensure access to the marketplace of ideas for all students, regardless of their opinions.

We hope to soon commend the Wesleyan Student Assembly for expressing its support of student press, acknowledging its commitment to Wesleyan’s free speech promises, and resisting pressure to punish the Argus simply for publishing controversial opinions.

UPDATE: On Sunday, October 18, the Wesleyan Student Assembly voted in favor of massively cutting the printing budget of the Argus in the next school year and instead rerouting that money to work-study programs for student publications that will be awarded based on a strange combination of Google Analytics numbers and student votes. Whatever happens, the Argus looks set to lose substantial funding. FIRE covered the vote in a follow-up blog entry, It’s Already Been a Remarkably Bad Year for Student Press.

Schools: Wesleyan University Cases: Wesleyan University: Student Newspaper Threatened with Funding Cuts after Controversial Op-Ed