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SGA-West Georgian conflict resolved

August 19, 2009

By Samantha Godwin at The West Georgian

As Former Editor-in-Chief, Ellis Smith, and SGA President, Alan Webster, laughed and conversed with one another near The West Georgian table at Summer Orientation on June 26, the arduous, heated debate over newspaper funding finally seemed to reach a close. Following The West Georgian’s publication of “Join a Frat with Buck Futter, Jr.,” by Jacob Lovell, a satire on Greek organizations, the SGA passed a bill that eliminated all newspaper funding and sparked over two months of Freedom of Speech debates.

After negotiations with the Student Activity Fee General Guidelines (SAFBA), letters to President Sethna and numerous faculty members, and involvement with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), The West Georgian was finally awarded a $7600 increase in funding by the SGA in July. With the argument settled, the SGA and The West Georgian hope to improve their strained relationship.

“It was really hectic over the summer, and we don’t need any more negativity right now,” Webster said. “Its time to put this all behind us, and make it a great year at West Georgia.”
The controversy began from the moment the Lovell article hit the stands. Within a few days, students posted over two hundred comments to The West Georgian website, and wrote dozens of Letters to the Editor. Britt Cole, a West Georgian Staff Writer, even wrote a rebuttal entitled “Great to be Greek,” which argued that Lovell unfairly stereotyped members of Greek fraternities and sororities. While Cole and other students merely labeled Lovell’s satire as mean-spirited and biased, others sought to punish the newspaper as a whole.

Only one day after the article’s publication, the SGA’s “Suspension of the West Georgian” bill threatened to terminate the West Georgian by cutting its finances. Immediately, Smith and various Free Speech advocates asserted that the SGA’s decision defied the constitution and the law. In a letter to Dr. Melanie McClellan, Smith asserted that over 60 court decisions, including Tinker v. DeMoines and Bazaar v. Fortune, “have been unanimous in their agreement that the First Amendment forbids almost all censorship of student-edited publications by college administrators.”

In an email to The West Georgian on April 26, 2009, however, Webster argued that his decision to cut funding “was not necessarily written in response to Lovell’s article. It relates more to a building issue over time with improper allotment of student activities funds that should otherwise be going to organizations that would promote unity.”

According to Smith, however, “Alan Webster told me firsthand on the phone that he specifically ‘couldn’t allow student fees to go to a publication that publishes this type of article.”

While some students continued to debate the constitutional and legal issues surrounding the decision, others criticized the West Georgian for lacking editorial discretion. Smith, however, argued that “charges of racism or other charges have yet to be proven or even brought to the newspaper in most cases…in cases where they have been brave enough to confront us, we have always been able to correct the misunderstanding.” Furthermore, he asserted that cuts would make editing more difficult. “Regulating comments on the website, increasing the quality of written articles, etc., required more hours that the existing staff had to spare,” he said in an email to Adam Kissel, a FIRE member, on July 21.

During the Student Activities Fee General Guidelines (SAFBA) meeting, the debates became even more intense. After the West Georgian failed to attend a SAFBA committee meeting, SAFBA decided to cut funding by $11, 500. In an email to The West Georgian on Jun 1, Dr. Melanie McClellan wrote, “a primary driving factor behind the SAFBA’s funding recommendation was that the West Georgian requested a hearing with the committee, then did not show up.” Smith, however, argued that a “time conflict” prevented any West Georgian representative from attending the meeting.

McCellan further justified the West Georgian budget reduction by pointing out that the paper does not fully utilize its funds. “Some members of the committee reasoned that, if you were able to complete your work for $6,000 less than you had budgeted for FY 09, you should be able to complete your work for FY 10 on a reduced budget.  FYI, the West Georgian finished the year with $7,266 of their budget unspent,” she said on June 1. This was later found to be a simple accounting mistake on the administration’s part

Moreover, the committee members also supported the reduction by arguing that The West Georgian’s decision to pay its faculty sponsor with SAFBA funds defied SAFBA policy.
According to an email from Melanie McClellan on June 1, “their decision to not fund the faculty advisor was appropriate, given the SAFBA guidelines…the letter to all organizations and departments which received funding included the sentence, ‘you must also keep in mind that no professional staff salaries may be paid out of the SAFBA monies.”

Trent Ross, a SAFBA committee member, also agreed. “I was in favor of cutting their funds by about 7, 000 due to their using SAFBA money to pay full-time professional employees.”
Yet of the 11, 500 reduction, the committee offered no explanation for the remaining 4, 500 reduction, which led many to believe that censorship primarily drove the SAFBA decision.
According to Ross, “I only voted for the decrease in the amount that they were paying the professional employee and nothing more,” which only accounts for a $7000 reduction.

“It is clear that while most organizations were funded above or at their previous levels, The West Georgian was discriminated against because it was ‘not responsive to the needs of students’, which is a phrase that smacks of content-related censorship,” Smith said in an email to Dr. McClellan.

Eventually, McClellan agreed with Smith’s assessment, and concluded, “it does appear that for some members of the committee, their decision was ‘content-motivated,’ in that they expressed concern over inaccurate reporting and the online blog content and the negative impression those created for readers outside the campus.”

With a new Editor-in-Chief, improved relations with the SGA and more money to dedicate to improving the editing and writing quality of the West Georgian, the West Georgian looks forward to a fresh start.

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Schools: University of West Georgia Cases: University of West Georgia: Student Newspaper’s Funding Cut on Basis of Content