Last week, Wesleyan University’s student newspaper, The Wesleyan Argus, published an op-ed by staff writer Bryan Stascavage criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement and questioning its approach to activism. Now, Wesleyan students are attempting to punish The Argus, one of the nation’s oldest college newspapers, for making the terrible mistake of using its Opinion section for its intended purpose: sharing students’ opinions.
Specifically, critics are circulating a petition to boycott The Argus. But in this case, “boycott” means “recycling the Argus” until its demands are met. You might more easily recognize this kind of “recycling” if we use the correct term for this type of activity: newspaper theft. Worse still, petitioners are demanding that The Argus lose its funding until their demands are met.
Argus Co-Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Brill, provided this statement to FIRE today, saying she has serious concerns the paper will be defunded:
While we agree with the petition’s call for more representation of students of color in The Argus, we value our editorial independence and our right to publish all opinions. We hope to work with the WSA and the student of color community to find ways to make The Argus more inclusive, but we will only implement changes on our own terms and with the promise of total editorial control. If no agreement is reached, we will consent to being defunded and instead seek funding from outside sources.
How did things get this out of control? Here’s a recap:
President’s Statement Against Censorship
The day after the op-ed was published, members of The Ankh, Wesleyan’s “student of color publication,” spoke to The Argus’ staff and demanded that the paper publish a front page editorial explaining the paper’s decision to publish Stascavage’s op-ed and addressing Wesleyan students’ reaction to it. The Argus obliged on September 17, apologizing for “the distress the piece caused the student body.”
At this point, standard operating procedure on a depressing number of campuses would be for administrators to issue some kind of statement deploring their students’ expression and vaguely threatening to punish them for it. One might expect Wesleyan, which has displayed a strained attitude towards freedom of association, to do the same. But instead, in an encouraging statement on Saturday, Wesleyan President Michael Roth entered the debate to artfully remind his students that they can, and should, share their thoughts about the op-ed but that they should be careful not to engage in censorship while doing so. Roth wrote:
Many students took strong exception to the article; it was meant to be a provocative piece. Some students not only have expressed their disagreement with the op-ed but have demanded apologies, a retraction and have even harassed the author and the newspaper’s editors. Some are claiming that the op-ed was less speech than action: it caused harm and made people of color feel unsafe.
Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.
This is good advice. Unfortunately, many Wesleyan students and faculty members have ignored it.
Student Senate Reaction
The Argus reports that members of the Student Senate addressed the petition against the paper, which had gained 147 signatures by the time The Argus reported on it, during the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) meeting. During the meeting, WSA member Sadasia McCutchen addressed student concerns over The Argus and claimed that this was not a freedom of speech issue. Her comments were related in the following excerpt from the meeting’s minutes:
[A] group of concerned students met in response to the Argus article about the Black Lives Matters article. It wasn’t fact based, and perhaps even openly racist. People argue this is a freedom of speech case. We aren’t trying to negotiate that. We want to talk about how this article isolates the community. We met with the Argus. It was a good conversation; productive. We got our voice across. We said that Black Lives Matter is not something that can be negotiated. It’s not a maybe, it’s a fact. We felt as though the Argus should have published an apology. A few students asked for this and it didn’t happen. We also noted Pres. Roth’s blog posts which is quite disgusting. It says that people form the Argus were being harassed. I don’t believe that people of color who were deeply insulted by this. We aren’t harassing the Argus for an apology. We have created a petition about the Argus. *see petition* It’s currently signed by over 100 students. We hope that you recognize the value of this, and the Argus deserve the change that[.]
How much does this petition threaten free speech? Well, here’s the full text (emphasis added):
The undersigned agree to boycott the Argus, recognizing that the paper has historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body. Most specifically, it neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future.
This boycott includes recycling the Argus and demanding that funds to the Argus, from the Wesleyan Student Assembly be revoked until the following demands are met:
- Commitment to create work study/course credit positions
- Monthly Report on allocation of funds and leadership structure
- Required once a semester Social Justice/Diversity training for all publications (Via Elisa Cardona/SALD office)
- Active Recruitment and Advertisement
- Open spaces dedicated for marginalized groups/voices if no submissions: BLANK that states: “for your voice” on the front page
To be clear: A “boycott” of a newspaper should not involve recycling or destroying newspapers containing content the boycotters dislike. That’s theft, not a boycott. In an op-ed for The College Fix, Stascavage claims that destruction of print copies of The Argus has already begun:
I polled the editors for how many copies were stolen. They estimated half of that print run of 1,000 copies. Some said they saw newspapers being burned or shredded.
Newspaper theft—which is unfortunately common—is a fundamentally illiberal attempt to censor speech. The petitioners who support this boycott should consider the precedent they set on Wesleyan’s campus: Should anyone be able to defund and destroy any publication because of controversial articles? If so, it certainly wouldn’t be long before these petitioners saw speech they supported being wrongfully silenced. It never is.
Student Michael Ortiz explained his support of the petition to The Argus:
My concerns with the Argus currently regard mostly its commitment to representing the views of the campus. … That the Argus chose to give this man somewhere to share his disrespectful opinion and to then have the Argus and its staff members defend the publication, hiding behind the argument of “well it’s not my opinion but he’s allowed to have it” is frankly a great disappointment. The Argus’ publication of this opinion is a silent agreement with its content, and a silent agreement to the all too prevalent belief that black [and] brown people do not deserve a voice, and that we are not worthy of respect.
Publishing an opinion is not, by itself, “silent agreement” with that opinion. If it is, then every newspaper with an Opinion section that publishes two opposing viewpoints (for example, op-eds that support and oppose the Black Lives Matter movement, or a point-counterpoint between politicians) is experiencing a serious case of cognitive dissonance.
Opinion sections exist to share different—and sometimes controversial—ideas and invite discussion. That’s what The Argus’ Opinion section achieved. And The Argus’ staff is right—students are allowed to have and share their own opinions. Newspaper staff should not have to fear their papers will be destroyed or defunded simply for publishing those opinions. The irony of arguing that a particular student’s viewpoint should not be published because the newspaper should represent the “views of the campus” appears to be lost on the petitioning students.
Brill, the co-editor-in-chief, disagreed with Ortiz’s assertion that the paper was “hiding behind” an argument in favor of Stascavage’s free speech when it published his op-ed:
We would love to work with the WSA on how to achieve diversity, but editorial independence remains a huge priority for us. … There’s an important conversation going on right now about The Argus representing the voices of all students; it seems counterintuitive to censor the voice of a student expressing their views, offensive as they may be to some. We will continue to publish even if we are defunded. It’s our responsibility to cover news on this campus and to represent our community.
Brill is right. Censoring student voices in order to “protect” student voices makes no sense, and the petitioners supporting destruction of The Argus would do well to remember that. As we’ve stated many times before, threatening to defund a newspaper is unacceptable—student newspapers should not be punished simply for doing their job. Protesters have every right to dispute Stascavage’s claims, but they should know that censoring his words is not the same as addressing them.
FIRE will be watching this situation closely, and we hope that attendees of WSA’s meeting on Sunday—which will focus solely on the petition against The Argus—remember President Roth’s advice.