Most newspapers print op-eds and editorials that advocate for specific viewpoints. The controversial ones are often met with rebuttals, comments, support, or scorn. This is how newspapers—and the marketplace of ideas—function. But this is apparently news to the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA). After passing a resolution last fall threatening to slash the funding of the student newspaper The Wesleyan Argus, the WSA has now revoked the entirety of the Argus’s unspent funds from the WSA for the current semester, throwing free speech and freedom of the press at Wesleyan University into even greater doubt.
Origins of the Funding Controversy
The controversy over the Argus began last September when the paper published staff writer Bryan Stascavage’s op-ed criticizing the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In response, a group of students “recycled”—or, more accurately, threw in a dumpster—copies of the Argus and circulated a petition demanding the paper lose its student government funding until the group’s demands were met.
— Inside Higher Ed (@insidehighered) September 23, 2015
Instead of voicing its support of free press on campus and ensuring that the Argus would keep its funding, the WSA voted in favor of a resolution affirming certain components of a “Stipends, Academic Credit, and Digitalization of Campus Publications” proposal, put forward by WSA member Alex Garcia weeks after the controversy began. The Argus could take a serious hit because of this proposal. Under it, the paper stands to lose $17,000 of its $30,000 budget, which will be reallocated amongst all student media at Wesleyan partially based on a popular vote of the student body—a deeply troubling scheme that makes it all too easy for students to fund only those publications whose content they personally like or agree with. The proposal allows the Argus to receive, at most, $25,100. At worst, the paper could be awarded just $13,000—less than half of its original budget. The WSA planned for a Spring 2016 semester working group, meant to include members of the Argus, to discuss potential alternative funding methods to cover the costs of the work study and social media advertising components envisioned in Garcia’s proposal, which are set to be officially implemented in the Fall 2016 semester. If no solutions can be agreed upon, presumably the Argus’ print funding will be used. FIRE expressed serious concerns about the proposal to redistribute funding when it was announced, and we wrote to the WSA to ask that it not subject the Argus’ budget to the whims of a student body that might seek to punish the paper for its content. When the WSA failed to respond, we shared our concerns with Wesleyan president Michael Roth and the university’s Board of Trustees, and asked the university to take action to protect the Argus’ independence if the WSA wouldn’t. It seemed unlikely that the WSA—after endorsing a proposal to slash the Argus’ budget and ignoring concerns that it was undermining student journalism—could make things worse.
The WSA Made Things Worse
Last Monday, the WSA’s Student Budget Committee decided to revoke what remained of the paper’s Spring 2016 budget. The Argus reports:
On March 14, we received an email from the WSA’s Student Budget Committee (SBC), informing us that they were planning to take back the entirety of our thus far unused funds for Spring 2016. This is money we were planning to use to produce the newspaper for the rest of the semester and also to pay for some of the issues that have already been published. They are also temporarily blocking funding going forward.
The SBC told the Argus that it removed the funding because “[the] SBC does not endorse rainy day or emergency fund[s].” On the WSA’s website, the SBC reaffirmed this statement yesterday, claiming that “the WSA is not defunding the Argus and has never attempted to do so” and arguing that the Argus’ extra funds took money away from other student groups:
When asked about the $12,580.32, the Argus referred to the money as an “emergency fund,” for which they had no demonstrated use. Because emergency and rainy day funds siphon funding away from other groups, the SBC considers them auxiliary funding. This is a policy that has been demonstrated by past SBC decisions pertaining to Club Rugby and Sailing team.
The argument that the Argus’ emergency fund “siphon[ed] funding away from other groups” is nonsense. The funds were raised through private donations which had no effect whatsoever on the overall amount of funding available to other student organizations. And, as Argus Editors-in-chief Courtney Laermer and Jess Zalph argued in response to the SBC, it would have been hard for the SBC not to have known of the funding and how it was raised:
[W]ith regard to the Argus’s alleged failure to disclose funding we received, our initiative to collect donations last fall was highly public, and we had no intention of being secretive. The separate account holding these donations is maintained by, and has always been fully accessible and visible to, the SBC.
If anything, the WSA is siphoning funds from the Argus, which sought private donations specifically because the WSA voted in favor of a resolution planning to cut the Argus’ funding. As Laermer and Zalph further explained:
[T]he donations were expressly solicited and provided to protect our ability to operate as a newspaper without fear of retaliatory defunding by the WSA. This was not supposed to provide the WSA with a rationale to withdraw our SBC funding until we spend down the donations and are back in the same position of being completely dependent on the WSA. If we had known that this would be the outcome, we would not have solicited donations in the first place.
Not only was this “rainy day fund” one that the Argus collected out of concern that the paper may face potential future need—for example, if it lost funding due to budget cuts enforced by the student government with the intent of punishing the paper for publishing an opinion section—it’s a fund whose creation isn’t even verboten by the WSA, as the Argus explained:
Here’s the catch: There is no policy against student organizations doing their own fundraising to obtain supplementary donations or, as the SBC referred to it, “rainy day funds.” Nevertheless, the SBC informed us that not only are we losing our money for this semester, but we will not receive any more money from them until we use up the entirety of our donations. This means that every penny we received to shield us from WSA whims is in effect being retracted to expand the WSA budget, rather than to provide emergency support to The Argus—as our fundraising efforts and donors clearly intended. This represents a painful lack of transparency. Perhaps even more tellingly, the bylaws under which these actions were presumably taken cannot be found on the WSA website, despite a note there that says the bylaws are “currently being updated” and will be available “before February 2016.”
To begin with, the bylaw provision WSA cites in support of its action—”Article VI, Section 2, II, F”—doesn’t seem to exist in the version of the WSA governance documents that is posted online. And the posted document seems to my uneducated eye to be at odds with the WSA’s actions in at least two ways. First, while the bylaw says that “all money allocated to student groups by the SBC or the CC remaining in that group’s account at the end of the year shall automatically revert to the SBC,” it goes on to specify that such funds may not be reverted before April 1. (The SBC is the Student Budget Committee, which funds the Argus.) And second, the same passage says that while SBC and CC funds revert to those bodies, “any funds not allocated by the SBC or the CC but deposited into that group’s account shall remain in the account indefinitely.” This seems to suggest that while SBC funds revert, independent funding doesn’t—which in turn suggests that it’s not appropriate for the WSA to pull money from the Argus’s SBC account to force it to spend its fundraised money.
Johnston also questioned the ethics of the WSA’s revocation of funding that originated from donors who wanted to donate to the Argus, not to myriad other Wesleyan student groups:
The people who donated to the Argus could have donated to the general fund of the WSA if they’d wanted to. They didn’t. They donated to the Argus to provide the Argus with supplemental funding above and beyond what the WSA gave them. By cutting the Argus’s other funding in response, WSA is in effect appropriating that donated money for its own purposes. That’s wrong.
So, to recap: The Argus, knowing it could lose some of its funding if the WSA’s working group, which the Argus claims it’s been excluded from, fails to find an alternative funding source, began seeking donations to support the paper. As Johnston put it: “When the Argus was faced with the prospect of a financial crisis last semester, it didn’t sit back, it hustled.” Then, the WSA, whose actions were the reason the Argus felt compelled to secure extra funding in the first place, proved to the Argus’ staff that their fears were valid by taking away the Argus’ remaining Spring 2016 funds, requiring them to use now what they were saving for the future.
But wait, there’s more! The WSA, which is punishing the Argus for its “rainy day fund,” apparently has one of its own. The WSA boasts an endowment totaling $366,000, money remaining from unused end-of-year SBC funds that were invested instead of rolled over to the next year. The goal of the endowment is to “ensure the long-term availability of student funds and to hopefully, twenty or thirty years down the road, stop charging students for the Student Activities Fee.” That sounds eerily similar to a “rainy day fund.”
This piece calls on WSA to stop threatening Argus funding and to stop making decisions through secretive measures:
— The Wesleyan Argus (@wesleyanargus) March 21, 2016
The Future of Free Press at Wesleyan
As these attacks continue, it becomes more and more apparent that the WSA isn’t threatening to reduce the Argus’ funding as a means to overhaul Wesleyan’s student media offerings. Having now revoked the Argus’ unspent funding on dubious grounds, the WSA is unambiguously interfering in the newspaper’s ability to carry out its work, and ultimately threatening its long-term viability.
Until the Argus’ funding is safe from the retaliatory whims of the WSA, a free press cannot thrive on Wesleyan’s campus. And that’s why we wrote to Wesleyan president Michael Roth, as well as Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees earlier this month—because the university has a “moral responsibility to ensure that student media, and student organizations in general, can exist free from the threat of discrimination based on content.”
It was the WSA’s earlier threats against the Argus’ funding that landed Wesleyan on our 2016 “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list in The Huffington Post. We’d hoped that this would motivate the WSA to clean up its act, but if it continues its attack on the Argus, it might lock down a spot in our 2017 list as well.