Purse Strings and Puppet Strings
January 30, 2008
One of the problems faced by college newspapers — particularly good college newspapers — is the tendency of student governments to treat their control of the purse strings for student activities as puppet strings. The latest example of this syndrome is on view at Montclair State University in northern New Jersey.
Apparently the student newspaper, The Montclarion, has been annoying the student government by criticizing its penchant for holding closed meetings. When the staff returned from their holiday recess last week, they found the Student Governing Association had frozen their funding and ordered the publisher not to print the paper edition. (The online edition went up anyway.) The Raw Story has some details:
Editors say their funding was frozen because of stories they wrote critical of the student government’s closed meetings. Student government leaders say they’re not censoring the newspaper, but that the paper’s editors overstepped their authority when they hired a lawyer to assist them in getting access to the meetings.
The SGA’s legislature was expected to decide Wednesday whether the organization’s top leaders erred in freezing the paper’s budget, a step criticized by groups including the New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center.
“You’re not only hurting the newspaper staff, which is having their free speech cut off, but the campus, which is being denied a valuable source of information,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the law center.
Montclair State administrators are trying to mediate the dispute, but the university doesn’t directly control the SGA, university spokeswoman Minne Ho said.
Newspaper editors said the budget freeze was punishment for the paper criticizing student government for regularly holding closed meetings, in possible violation of New Jersey’s open meetings law.
“They’re doing it as a response to pressure we were applying for them to comply with the open public meetings act,” said Shayna Jacobs, The Montclarion’s news editor.
Karl de Vries, The Montclarion’s editor-in-chief, said the SGA also wanted the newspaper to turn over correspondence between the newspaper and a lawyer The Montclarion had previously retained to challenge the student government’s practice of closing meetings to the public. The SGA fired the lawyer in November.
SGA President Ron Chicken didn’t return a telephone call and e-mail seeking comment. He told The College of New Jersey’s student newspaper, The Signal, that the budget freeze wasn’t about censorship.
It never is, is it?