Since bringing Virginia Military Institute’s independent student newspaper, The Cadet, back to life in spring 2021, editors have marched on despite opposition and pressure from VMI’s administration every step of the way. FIRE’s Student Press Freedom Initiative accordingly expressed support for the student journalists in a recent letter urging the institution to cease its attempts to undermine the publication’s independence.
Cadet editors have directed FIRE’s attention to a series of troubles stemming from the paper’s relationship with VMI leadership over the course of the past year. VMI leadership has told Cadet editors they must submit to administrative guidance to receive campus resources, interfered with the paper’s distribution on multiple occasions, and even pressured editors to change the paper’s tone.
With a history stretching back over a century-and-a-half, The Cadet is a fixture of VMI’s community. Originally founded in 1871 as a magazine, The Cadet shifted to an independent student newspaper in 1907 and has operated as one since. But due to issues with the VMI administration, the paper ceased publication from 2016 until spring of 2021, when a fresh group of students and alumni worked together to revive it as a nonprofit with no official affiliation with VMI. Student editors make all of the paper’s content and editorial decisions, in line with its history of editorial independence.
But the Cadet’s return has not been without challenges.
VMI maintains that the institution will not support the paper should its editors continue to work with alumni and professional journalists as mentors–mentorship that has traditionally been part of the paper’s operations.
VMI lacks authority to make any decision on behalf of The Cadet. VMI also lacks the authority to penalize Cadet editors for those decisions.
VMI Commandant Col. Adrian Bogart went so far as to ask editors during a July 2021 meeting not to publish anything that conflicts with prior reporting on the school’s history with sexual assault and racism. Bogart also expressed general disapproval of the paper’s content.
In a similar incident, Col. Bill Wyatt, VMI director of communications and marketing, took issue with an article about the campus counseling center. In an email to former Cadet editor-in-chief James Mansfield, Wyatt pressured the paper to publish an op-ed he wrote defending the college and correcting alleged mistakes in the paper’s reporting. Wyatt suggested the reporters acted unethically, even invoking a recent suicide at another Virginia university to pressure The Cadet to publish VMI’s statement.
This pattern of administrative pressure prompted FIRE to write VMI on Sept. 21, calling for the college’s leadership to respect the editor’s rights to control the paper’s content and organizational structure, and to grant Cadet editors accommodations commensurate with those of other student groups.
The influence VMI has exerted over The Cadet with regard to its distribution, content, and operations reflects a serious intrusion on the newspaper’s independence. While [the] administration has stated its intention is not to control the content of The Cadet, the current pattern of unconstitutional overreach into the paper’s dealings demonstrates otherwise.
Independent student newspapers like The Cadet retain complete editorial independence and authority to make decisions over the paper’s content, structure, and operations. As we wrote in our letter:
[T]he Institute’s support for forums for student expression—such as an independent student newspaper—does not allow VMI to make decisions on behalf of student leaders within such forums. Accordingly, VMI’s role vis-à-vis independent student publications is limited to one of support rather than one of authority.
Simply stated, VMI lacks authority to make any decision on behalf of The Cadet. VMI also lacks the authority to penalize Cadet editors for those decisions.
While the VMI administration has failed to support The Cadet, the paper has supporters in high places within the Virginia state government. The Virginia House and Senate jointly passed a resolution in March commending the paper, stating that independent papers like The Cadet “where students have complete editorial control of content separate from influence or control are essential voices of independent free speech.” In April, Glenn Youngkin, Virginia governor and VMI Commander-In-Chief, wrote to The Cadet congratulating it on its 115th anniversary, stating, “The Commonwealth is proud that cadets, since establishment, maintain total editorial control of The Cadet’s contents, as they publish ‘the voice of the Corps.’”
When asked about his experiences with the paper, former editor-in-chief Mansfield wrote, “People say that VMI is an awful place to be at but an awfully great place to be from. My experience with the VMI administration and the VMI family made this patently clear. As soon as folks realized the paper was being restarted it seemed like the entire VMI family reached out with their support . . . Ironically the only resistance we experienced was from the current administration.”
Despite the troubles editors have faced over the last year, co-editor-in-chief Russell Crouch remains optimistic. “The Cadet was the voice of the Corps and I’m glad to be a part of bringing that back. Restarting the paper has led to some difficulties . . . but I have a strong feeling that by working closely with Cadet leadership and FIRE, we can climb the ladder and reestablish ourselves within the school system.”
We call on VMI’s administrators to stop interfering with the paper’s operations.
Patrick Sexton, Cadet co-editor-in-chief, said that despite the paper’s troubles with the administration, he wants to move on from them.“The situation we find ourselves in is not one we wish to stay in, so we look forward to joining forces with FIRE to reconcile and build our relationship with the administration and Commandant’s Staff.”
We hope that VMI leadership will come around to the views of its students, alumni, and state of Virginia to embrace The Cadet and its longstanding legacy on campus. Until then, we call on VMI’s administrators to stop interfering with the paper’s operations.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).