First, the good news. FIRE reported on Tuesday that the University of West Georgia (UWG) had not only restored but increased the funding of its controversial student newspaper, The West Georgian, after agreeing that the university's finance committee had made its decision partly on the basis of unconstitutional considerations of the newspaper's content. Indeed, one of the more pleasant letters FIRE has received from university counsel was the one we received from University General Counsel E. Jane Simpson. The university agreed with FIRE's analysis of the situation, promised to investigate, and asked the finance committee to reconsider. The proof's in the pudding; the reconsideration of the paper's funding request resulted in $7,600 more than the paper had originally been allocated.
Then, at the end of the day yesterday, I received a phone call from Rob Douthit, Director of Media Relations at UWG. He told me that the university's administration, in no way whatsoever, was involved in cutting the newspaper's funds—and of course, the university "was dismayed" when it learned about what the students had done! The university seems to be hanging out the students to dry.
After we talked a while, it was clear that he really had a more narrow claim, as he wrote me later via e-mail: "[T]he University of West Georgia's administration in no way advocated any form of censorship or punishment of The West Georgian student newspaper based on its content."
Indeed, the broader claim was untenable. On further investigation, all parties agreed that one funding cut—money for the newspaper's advisor—was a valid cut under the official guidelines. Surely, the university wasn't denying that? No; OK. But Douthit's narrower claim—that UWG's administration had nothing to do with the funding cut—holds no water, either. The UWG administration was involved in the content-based cut. Here's why:
- The finance committee, known as the Student Activity Fee Budget Allocation Committee (SAFBA), is an administrative committee acting in the name of the University of West Georgia. Specifically, SAFBA is "vested by the Faculty Senate as an autonomous committee to serve as a representative body of the University of West Georgia community with the responsibility of overseeing the process of student activity fee funding requests and allocations in accordance with state, University system, and institutional policies and procedures."
- SAFBA members include two faculty or staff members appointed by the university's president. (Douthit seemed unaware of this. In our conversation, he suggested that it was only the student members of SAFBA who used content considerations in the decision to cut the funds. Trent Ross, one of the student members of SAFBA, however, responded to an open records request via e-mail on May 4, stating, "I only voted for the decrease in the amount that they were paying the professional employee and nothing more than that but as you can see, their budget was cut by more than that." The votes of other SAFBA members are not in the public record.)
- SAFBA members also include two non-voting members, who at the time were Randall Rowland, a CPA who works in Budget Services, and Linda Picklesimer, Director of Campus Center. Picklesimer's April 9 official letter about the paper's funding cut expresses no "dismay," as Douthit contends. Instead, Picklesimer reported in her letter that the committee "felt that the West Georgian has not been responsive this past year to the needs of the students."
- On April 30, in an e-mail from Melanie McClellan, Vice President for Student Affairs & Enrollment Management, to Institutional Research and Planning, McClellan reports that she has "forwarded to the President for his approval" the SAFBA recommendations. She expresses no "dismay." To her credit, however, McClellan is the one who, on further analysis (a few weeks after FIRE's May 11 letter), decided that "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 of the campus. ... I have concluded that there is enough question about the process that a reconsideration is in order."
- Indeed, it appears that UWG President Beheruz N. Sethna himself approved the SAFBA recommendations. There is no public record of his "dismay" over the content-based cut.
Douthit actually made the administration's case a little worse when we talked yesterday, pointing out the apparently widespread allegations that some articles in the newspaper were "offensive," "racist," or "sexist." It didn't really help the university's position, either, that Douthit pointed me to a highly critical piece at The Huffington Post. Douthit stated in his e-mail to me that this piece shows that "there is a viewpoint that the university did not do enough to curb some of the more controversial content from appearing in the paper," and hastened to point out that the university responded with its own June 5 press release (note the late date) supporting freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Why did Douthit have to point me to the content complaints rather than just give me the June 5 release? I think he wanted me to see the content complaints as well, not just to prove the university's bold restraint in the face of the complaints.
Maybe UWG is getting a little too worked up over a victory for freedom of expression in which the university's senior administration admirably reversed course—once FIRE explained what had gone wrong. Why not just admit that the administration had its role in the unconstitutional considerations that went into the funding cut? Perhaps it is because UWG is one of the schools in the University System of Georgia, where sister school Valdosta State University (VSU) is embroiled in a painfully embarrassing, likely quite expensive lawsuit over the expulsion of a student over a completely innocent Facebook page that made fun of the legacy of VSU's president and protested the construction of new parking garages. But FIRE has never threatened litigation at UWG, and nobody else is doing so over this incident either. Come on, UWG, take the victory and run with it—don't just blame the students.