By Madeline Will at Student Press Law Center
Wesleyan University, a small, private liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut, has become the face of a national debate over freedom of speech, censorship and to what extent offensive speech should be tolerated.
In mid-September, a student and Iraq War veteran Bryan Stascavage wrote an opinion piece for the Wesleyan Argus criticizing Black Lives Matter. Since then, students have stolen newspapers, publicly shamed Stascavage and launched a petition demanding that the Argus be defunded if it does not meet certain measures to increase diversity.
In the most recent development last week, the Wesleyan student government unanimously voted to form a working group to consider cutting up to $17,000 in printing funds from the Argus and using the money to create 20 paid positions at various student publications across campus, which could include the Argus. The group will spend the next year discussing the best way to implement the cuts, which haven’t gone into effect yet.
Still, the raging debate between free speech and political correctness has appeared in the opinion pages of newspapers and blogs across the country, including the Washington Post and the Daily Beast (with the headline, “Wesleyan: The School for Intolerant Dictators”). Some journalists and other onlookers have decried the protesters as being too sensitive and fearful of a robust discourse that they might disagree with.
The College Media Association condemned the student government’s actions in a statement last week.
“Anytime the government seeks to control the media, freedom of the press is in danger,” CMA President Rachele Kanigel said. “Whether it’s through direct censorship, or through financial manipulation, interfering with the operations of a student newspaper is a form of censorship.”
University President Michael Roth, who has defended the Argus’ right to free speech since the initial outcry, wrote an op-ed for the Hartford Courant acknowledging students’ right to criticize the initial column in the Argus but decrying punishment of the paper.
“Protests against newspapers, of course, are also part of free speech,” he wrote. “But punishment, if successful, can have a chilling effect on future expression.”
He continued by saying that students must not “protect [themselves] from disagreement” and “be open to being offended for the sake of learning.”
“Education worthy of the name does not hide behind a veneer of civility or political correctness, but instead calls into question our beliefs,” he wrote. “We learn most when we are ready to consider challenges to our values from outside our comfort zones of political affiliation and personal ties.”
The Argus is now accepting donations to brace for potential cuts. In a message, the editors wrote that a $17,000 funding cut would prevent them from printing twice a week, which the Argus has done for decades. It would also make them unable to pay some of their staff, particularly those in layout and distribution, they wrote.
The student government’s resolution states that it is intended to promote environmental sustainability by lessening the number of papers printed and increase diversity on the newspaper’s staff by removing the financial burden of participating.
In a blog post titled “It’s Already Been a Remarkably Bad Year for Student Press,” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote that the Wesleyan Argus case, among others, sends an intimidating message to student journalists that they shouldn’t publish anything that might offend someone.
“That this advice is antithetical to a free press, and that journalists cannot be held responsible for how their readers react to opinions they publish, doesn’t seem to matter all that much to the people demanding they be censored,” the post said.
Schools: Wesleyan University