Travis Witt / Wikicommons
Attacks on student newspapers following the publication of controversial articles are unfortunately commonplace. Over the years, FIRE has seen newspaper advisers fired, issues stolen from racks, formal disciplinary investigations, attempted administrative takeovers, threats to newspaper funding, and even complete defunding of all student media, simply because some on (or off) campus did not like what a particular student paper published. But perhaps slightly less common is a concerted attack from administrators, faculty, and students on a student newspaper all at once. Sadly, that is exactly what is happening at Texas State University, and FIRE has joined with two other free speech organizations — the Student Press Law Center and National Coalition Against Censorship — to demand a cessation in their attempt to punish the newspaper.
The controversy began on November 28, when The University Star, an independent student newspaper at TSU, published an editorial by opinion columnist Rudy Martinez titled “Your DNA is abomination.” Martinez’s editorial argued that race is a social construct used to oppress non-white populations, and that the concept of whiteness should be destroyed. He closed with a provocative message to those identifying as white:
Until then, remember this: I hate you because you shouldn’t exist. You are both the dominant apparatus on the planet and the void in which all other cultures, upon meeting you, die.
Naturally, critics of the opinion of a single student newspaper columnist decided to launch a scorched earth attack on the entire newspaper. Media outlets began to decry the editorial as “Nazi stuff,” and wonder out loud how such an article could have been published. TSU Student Government President Connor Clegg issued a press release demanding the resignation of Martinez, the Editor-in-Chief, and the Opinions Editor of the Star. Clegg’s press release also threatened that he would attack the Star’s funding if the resignations were not forthcoming. A petition was started calling for the defunding of the Star.
Not content to be left out, Texas State faculty and administrators lept into the fray. On November 29, TSU President Denise Trauth issued a scathing rebuke of Martinez’s editorial, and the Star:
I am deeply troubled by the racist opinion column that was published in the November 28, 2017, issue of the University Star titled “Your DNA is an abomination.” The column’s central theme was abhorrent and is contrary to the core values of inclusion and unity that our Bobcat students, faculty, and staff hold dear. As president of a university that celebrates its inclusive culture, I detest racism in any manifestation.
While I appreciate that the Star is a forum for students to freely express their opinions, I expect student editors to exercise good judgment in determining the content that they print.
The same day, the Star issued an apology to those offended by the editorial.
But TSU wasn’t quite done piling on the beleaguered newspaper. TSU Assistant Vice President of Communications Matt Flores informed Inside Higher Ed that the university is “looking further” into the editorial’s publication. TSU Director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications Judy Oskam also announced that she has formed a committee to examine The University Star’s editorial review process and provide “recommendations.”
Bowing to the intense pressure, The University Star fired Rudy Martinez on November 30.
Of course, students, faculty, and administrators are within their rights to express their disagreement with Martinez’s editorial and the editorial process that led to its publication, and the Star has a right to decide for itself who it will employ or what it will publish. But when that disagreement crosses the line into threats against a newspaper’s funding and independence, it attacks one of our most cherished civil liberties. And that, FIRE will not abide.
Concerned with the mounting assault on the First Amendment at TSU, a coalition of FIRE, the Student Press Law Center, and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to President Trauth, urging her to safeguard the constitutional rights that TSU is legally bound to uphold.
The coalition letter reminded TSU that the Supreme Court has been clear that expression does not lose First Amendment protection simply because some, most, or even almost all find it offensive, distasteful, or hateful.
“That’s all well and good,” critics will answer, “but my mandatory student fees pay for that newspaper, and if I don’t like what they publish, I shouldn’t have to subsidize it.”
Appealing as that argument may sound to some, it is also legally unsupportable. As our letter explains, two decades of legal precedent establish that when a university collects mandatory student fees to support a diverse forum for student expression, those fees must be distributed in a content- and viewpoint-neutral manner:
The Supreme Court has ruled that the forum for expressive activity created by the collection and distribution of mandatory student activity fees in the public university setting requires access to be granted on a content-and viewpoint-neutral basis. See Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 233 (2000) (“When a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others.”); Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 836 (1995) (“For the University, by regulation, to cast disapproval on particular viewpoints of its students risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the Nation’s intellectual life, its college and university campuses.”).
In Rosenberger and Southworth, the Court held that when a public university decides to use student fees to fund a multiplicity of independent student groups, as TSU has done here, each student group retains its status as a private party expressing its personal viewpoint. Unlike an “official” university publication, student newspapers like The University Star are independent organizations whose speech is fully protected by the First Amendment, a fact recognized by Oskam in her December 1 statement. Accordingly, the university and its agents cannot censor or punish such publications on the basis of content, even those which receive student fees, any more than the government can censor The New York Times. The University Star’s funds cannot be withdrawn or diminished simply because students or TSU’s Student Service Fee Committee may not find its content to their liking.
Calling for the defunding of a student newspaper on the basis of views expressed in its editorial pages is calling for precisely the type of viewpoint discrimination that the Supreme Court has routinely found unconstitutional. If students would like to air alternative views, they are free to write editorials of their own, or even start their own newspaper and apply for funding — which would be equally protected from attacks based on content or viewpoint. But what they cannot do is strip a student fee-funded newspaper of its funding simply because they disagreed with a column. After all, if a student newspaper lost its funding every time someone was offended by views printed on its pages, student newspapers would hesitate to publish anything that might be controversial at all.
TSU’s own threats are equally problematic. The Star now faces a review of its policies and processes from a meddling university-created committee, which threatens the independence of the newspaper. Can the university guide students and provide advice on good journalistic practice? Absolutely. That is what newspaper advisers are for. But as it’s unlikely that such a committee can legitimately have any power over an independent student publication, an ad hoc committee designed to dress down supposed flaws in the Star’s editorial process reeks of an attempt to force changes on the newspaper, all because it dared to publish an article some found offensive. If that is proof of a failure in the editorial process, every newspaper in country ought to be flogging themselves.
The chilling effect in this case has already become clear. Faced with threats against its funding, a university investigation, and an imposed review committee, The University Star has fired Martinez for writing an editorial which the paper itself approved for publication. It is entirely predictable that, in light of your administration’s suggestion that The University Star has engaged in some kind of misconduct, the staff will be hesitant to publish any future articles that have the potential to be controversial. This is an unacceptable result at a public university legally bound to uphold the First Amendment, and a great disservice to your students, our nation’s future journalists.
The letter from FIRE, SPLC, and NCAC asks that President Trauth ensure that The University Star’s funding will not be reduced or removed as a result of this incident, end any formal investigation of the paper, and provide assurance that any recommendations provided by Oskam’s committee be expressly advisory, rather than mandatory — whether explicitly or implicitly.
While we await a substantive reply from TSU — which has thus far only acknowledged receipt of our letter — and the student government (which has not replied at all), we will continue to watch closely.