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April 03, 2011 12:00 PM “Freedom” of the Press

By Daniel Luzer

Stylus1.jpg

In democracy, fights between the press and the government are ongoing. The opposition between these two groups is what helps keeps society healthy and the people informed. That’s not say that the debate is pleasant, it’s virtually always unpleasant, but at least we understand what’s going on.

And then there are campus newspapers and campus government.

In the real world news publications are, if not actually autonomous or profitable, at least independent of government. On college campuses, however, newspapers are considered a student activity, and thus depend on student government for funding, at least usually.

And that’s what makes this so hard. The student government at the State University of New York at Brockport is pretty angry about how the campus newspaper criticizes student government. And so student government is fighting back.

According to an article by James Goodman at the Rochester, New York Democrat and Chronicle:

[The Stylus, the student newspaper at SUNY Brockport]… has been feuding SUNY Brockport’s student government in a flap that raises First Amendment issues about what kind of control — if any — a student government should have over a college newspaper.
The two have clashed over a Stylus column highly critical of the Brockport student government treasurer and a subsequent demand by student government that the paper’s editor resign; a denied Freedom of Information request for a report pertaining to student government spending; and student government freezing “nonessential” Stylus spending earlier this month.

This apparently all went down because back in early Winter SGA Treasurer Kyle Kirchgraber took bundles of the student newspaper from around campus to use as a prop during the budget review process. He used the bundles to show how much money the college “wastes” printing the paper.

But while individual copies of the paper are free, if someone wants more than one copy he has to pay 25 cents each. That money goes to the paper and so by taking copies, Stylus editor Bill Matthias wrote in February, the SGA treasurer was stealing from the newspaper.

His column led SGA to write back, accusing Matthias of libel and demanding that he resign. Well no, said Matthias. He also refused to print a retraction, which SGA demanded, because what he said was true.

Or at least it’s arguably true. SGA’s lawyer, William Smith, says that the campus newspaper is a part of student government. “It’s not a separate and distinct entity.” The SGA can’t steal anything from itself.

The lawyer wrote that “any and all assets owned by The Stylus are in fact owned by BSG. To the extent that an officer of BSG acquires or uses those assets for a purpose that is common to both the organization and BSG, it is simply using its own assets.”

In March SGA froze the Stylus’s budget. More than half of the newspaper’s budget, some $92,775, is appropriated by the student government.

Still, something about this seems a little off. Granted, student newspapers are sort of play journalism, much as student government is play politics, but it seems really creepy to suggest that the newspaper is a part of the SGA. The SGA doesn’t have that kind of power.

The SGA isn’t in charge of the newspaper and shouldn’t be making decisions about how that the newspaper operates; it merely distributes funding. And that money comes from student activity fees. Brockport SGA doesn’t really own Stylus assets. It doesn’t own anything at all. It appears the student body of SUNY Brockport is the actual owner.

As Matthias points out, the newspaper has rules. The editor-in-chief can be removed by a two-thirds vote of the newspaper’s editorial board. The newspaper’s charter does not allow SGA to fire the editor. And that’s because he doesn’t answer to the SGA. Like at regular publications, he answers only to the board. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer