Texas State University, asked to protect student newspaper’s First Amendment rights, offers muted response

By December 22, 2017

Earlier this month, FIRE joined the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Student Press Law Center in a letter to Texas State University President Denise M. Trauth, calling on TSU to clearly rebuff threats by its student body president to defund the student newspaper, The University Star. The newspaper faced calls for revocation of its funding after it published an editorial arguing that race is a social construct used to oppress non-white populations, that the concept of whiteness should be destroyed, and that those identifying as white “shouldn’t exist.”

As my colleague Ari Cohn explained, the piece was widely criticized — including by President Trauth — and the Star issued an apology and parted ways with the piece’s author. Some, however, went beyond criticism and ventured into calls for censorship: a petition called for an end to the “forced coercion of our tuition dollars funding the one-sided anti-Semitic propaganda that the University has routinely let the Star get away with.” The student body president issued a press release demanding the resignations of the newspaper’s editors; if they were not forthcoming, he would call “for an emergency meeting of the Student Service Fee Committee to reevaluate the paper’s funding and call for a full divestment of student fees from the Star.”

TSU responded to the FIRE coalition with a letter that completely fails to defend its students’ First Amendment rights.  

First, TSU denies the claim — made by nobody at all — that the Star has been defunded:

Allegation that The University Star was de-funded. This allegation is incorrect. The University Star was not de-funded. The newspaper is funded by Student Service Fees (SSF) and sale of advertisements. The SSF Committee allocates funds during the annual budgetary process; no emergency meeting has been called and no funding changes made. The de-funding threat you reference was made by a person with no authority to speak for the university or de-fund The University Star.

That “person” is TSU’s Student Body President, Connor Clegg, who appoints student members of the Student Service Fee Advisory Committee (the majority of which is controlled by students) and provides annual funding recommendations to TSU’s president. Clegg has threatened to call an emergency meeting to defund the Star, without citing any authority to do so.

Of course, the committee can only make recommendations; TSU’s president then decides what recommendation to make to the governing board. But the chilling effect on speech arises from the threat to recommend a cut in funding, which TSU’s leadership could ultimately approve or deny. That possibility might cause a newspaper to think twice before publishing anything that might upset those with the authority to make funding decisions.

It would have been simple enough for TSU to defend its students’ First Amendment rights by taking a firm and clear position that its president would not accept a recommendation to cut the Star’s funding. It did not do so. Given the opportunity to protect against a chilling effect, and its decision not to affirmatively do so, TSU’s inaction contributes to the chilling effect created by Clegg’s calls to defund the Star. (Clegg, likewise, could resolve the matter himself by publicly disavowing his pledge to seek censorship.)

Second, TSU denies that it is “creating a review committee to examine” the Star’s “editorial review process.” It then goes on to admit that it had taken “initial steps to create an advisory committee,” but hadn’t followed through with it and no longer plans to constitute the committee. TSU’s letter provides no explanation for why it has abandoned this publicly-announced committee. If it was to avoid the chilling effect created by investigative committees, why not say as much?

Perhaps it’s because TSU denies that there has been a chilling effect at all, citing the Star’s continued publication of two letters that are “particularly critical” of TSU’s president. This, TSU says, “resoundingly refute[s]” the notion that there has been a chilling effect. But that a newspaper doesn’t immediately cease publishing mildly critical letters to the editor doesn’t mean there isn’t a chilling effect. What is it not publishing now? What will it hesitate to publish in the future?

In any event, it’s welcome news that TSU views the now-abandoned committee as only advisory, rather than one that could impose its recommendations. It’s also welcome news that TSU recognizes that Clegg cannot unilaterally end funding — though nobody ever suggested he could. TSU, given an opportunity to stand firmly behind its students’ First Amendment rights, declined to do so. That’s disappointing.

Schools: Texas State University – San Marcos Cases: Texas State University: Independent Student Newspaper Under Fire for Controversial Opinion Column