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Wesleyan Student Assembly Makes Wise Decision to Remove Student Media Funding from Its Control

Ever since Wesleyan University’s student newspaper The Wesleyan Argus ran a student op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement last September, it has faced censorship from students and endured months of continued funding threats from the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA). FIRE has repeatedly criticized the WSA’s mistreatment of the Argus— including the WSA's recent revocation of the Argus’ remaining spring budget—but a new WSA resolution could potentially help to address our concerns.

The Argus reported last week that the WSA recently voted to pass Resolution 16.37, which established the Media Publications Fund Committee—a media funding group meant to exist outside the control of the WSA’s Student Budget Committee. This means that starting next year, the WSA will cease to exercise direct control over media funding.

As one of the bill’s sponsors, Jack Minton, observed: “There’s anywhere between a cause for concern to a blatant conflict of interest when a student government is directly funding media publications that, in good conscience, has [sic] to be critical of them at times.”

A cursory look at the WSA’s treatment of the Argus over the past year shows that the WSA’s control over student media funding is indeed a cause for concern. The Argus explained how this resolution may address that problem:

As a result of the resolution, the WSA will no longer directly fund student publications.

Starting in the 2016-17 school year, the task of determining the funding for student publications will go to a new Media Publications Fund Committee. That committee will be able to allocate $60,000, taken from the Student Activities Fee and devoted specifically to student publication funding.

Beyond the 2016-17 school year, the bill proposes that funding for the Committee come from a $13 per semester student voluntary opt-out fee, designed after that of the Green Fund. That fee is expected to generate at least $30,000 per semester. If it fails to generate that amount of money, the SBC, according to this resolution, will pay enough for the committee to have a $30,000 budget each semester.

By recognizing that its funding of student publications could be affected by its members’ bias against the content of those publications, it appears the WSA is taking a step in the right direction.

It’s still a little premature to celebrate the return of a free press at Wesleyan, though. As the Argus points out, the bylaws for the Media Publications Fund Committee are yet to be determined:

Although many questions about the state of publication funding have now been answered, one major aspect of the Media Publications Fund Committee remains uncertain. Under the legislation, the committee has the ability to determine its bylaws, or the rules under which it operates. Those bylaws, according to Asher, are likely to be crafted in April.

When these bylaws are crafted, we should have a clearer picture of the way this committee will fund publications, and whether it will seek to provide funding in a viewpoint-neutral manner.

Among FIRE’s major concerns with the WSA’s previous resolution concerning student media funding—as we noted in our recent letter to Wesleyan’s president and trustees—was the ease with which viewpoint discrimination could taint the allocation process. It’s too early to tell whether that concern has been sufficiently addressed here.

It’s also worth paying attention to the impact the Digitization and Stipends Working Group (DSWG)—the working group created to brainstorm alternative funding sources in the aftermath of the WSA’s threats against the Argus’ budget—could have on the Media Publications Fund Committee, since the WSA’s resolution determined that it will serve in an advisory role.

Members of the Argus claimed in March that they had been excluded from the DSWG’s deliberation process, and “have not been receiving emails or information, or been invited to meetings if there have been any.” As editors-in-chief Courtney Laermer and Jess Zalph recently wrote: “For a process that is supposed to be collaborative, our exclusion is disconcerting and it’s hard to not conclude that the relevant members of the WSA have already made up their minds.” If this working group is to advise the Media Publications Fund Committee, it should do so without bias against the Argus or other publications.

Lastly, this eyebrow-raising statement in the resolution is worth addressing:

Acknowledging that the WSA has never attempted to defund The Argus

The WSA can affirm in hundreds of resolutions that no defunding attempts have ever been made, but that doesn’t change the fact that in October the WSA passed a resolution threatening to take away over half the Argus’ budget so it could be reallocated to other publications. Or that only last month the WSA’s Student Budget Committee rescinded the Argus’ remaining spring budget. If the WSA is going to acknowledge there’s a need for student media to be insulated from the WSA’s control, it could at least admit why that need exists.

Last week, in a post addressing freedom of expression on campus, Wesleyan President Michael Roth acknowledged the concerns free speech advocates have voiced about the Argus’ funding crisis. Roth rightly observed that “punishment, if successful, can have a chilling effect on future expression.” Roth also said he supports the creation of the Media Publications Fund Committee, adding he is “confident that they will find a vehicle that protects editorial autonomy without just writing the newspaper a blank check.”

FIRE hopes Roth’s confidence is well-placed.

While we’ll be glad to see the Argus’ funding—and the funding of all student media—be removed from the control of the WSA, this doesn’t mean student journalists no longer need to worry about censorship from their peers or budget committees. Until we see how this media group actually decides to how to distribute funding to student publications, we’ll remain cautiously optimistic. Wesleyan students now have a chance to show that free press is respected on their campus. They shouldn’t squander it.

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