Drug reference slipped into horoscope column spurs college to suspend paper

NEW YORK — It is not often that a student newspaper adviser supports shutting down the newspaper, but the adviser at Onondaga Community College said chronic and intense cases of mismanagement on the part of the paper’s top editors left her no choice — and the editors are not fighting back.

Laurel Saiz, adviser to The Overview, Onondaga’s student newspaper, said she was called upon nearly every other week to resolve disputes among the staff members. Saiz said it was these personnel disputes — not the paper’s content — that caused her to support the student government association’s decision to shut down the paper in late April with two issues remaining in the semester.

‘To say this is the college cracking down and a violation of free press is to totally misrepresent the situation,’ said Saiz, who is the former executive director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. ‘I mean, they were the ones that tampered with their own newspaper.’

Overview editor Patty Orty was informed in a letter dated May 2 that Onondaga Student Services Association’s judicial committee, composed of five students and two nonvoting faculty members, had decided to place the newspaper on ‘inactive and probationary status,’ which according to student activity bylaws, means ‘that a club or organization’s budget is frozen and the organization cannot meet, plan activities and in this particular case, produce a newspaper.’

Saiz insists that the paper’s content did not prompt the punishment. But an April 25 letter Saiz sent to Orty referenced ‘the publication of a notice exhorting students to attend an off-campus party where they could have conceivably gotten into trouble with the police’ as one of the reasons publication was suspended. Saiz stated in the letter that she was referring to the contents of a weekly horoscope column called ‘Diablo’ written by former literary editor J.D. Converse.

Instead, Saiz said the decision to shut down the paper was prompted by a series of events that occurred during the spring semester — events that Saiz said violated proper journalistic ethics.

Problems first began to escalate when Converse failed to come in to finish the ‘Diablo’ section for an issue in early April. Orty said another staff member completed the section after numerous attempts to reach Converse failed. A letter to the editor slamming the weekly column was inserted into the issue. Former managing editor Russell Burlingame wrote the letter, but it was attributed to a fictitious student — a practice Burlingame and Orty both said the paper had employed all year.

Upon seeing the letter to the editor and the section that had been completed without his input, Orty said Converse removed sections of the issue and hid the remaining portions in the newsroom, telling Orty he had distributed them around campus. When Orty discovered that the issues had been tampered with, she said she confronted Converse and the two entered into a verbal altercation outside the campus bookstore that was intense enough to draw campus security to the scene.

Converse could not be reached for comment, but both Saiz and Orty said he admitted to them that he tampered with the papers.

Saiz said these and other events caused the student government committee to investigate the situation at The Overview. While the situation was under review, the April 18 ‘Diablo’ column provided the paper’s critics with additional fodder.

The April 18 column contained an invitation to an off-campus party and implied marijuana would be used at the event. The column stated that the party would start at ‘4:20’ and urged guests to ‘BYOM.’

Although Orty said she did not catch the drug reference, Saiz said the fact that the column was allowed to run was — in her opinion — the final straw. Saiz said she would have supported wholeheartedly the staff’s right to publish an editorial or a column supporting the legalization of marijuana. But she said she opposed the use of obscure references and the fact that the column encouraged students to partake in illegal behavior.

‘When you slip something in in a back-door way, then you are not practicing forthright free expression,’ Saiz said.

Both Orty and Burlingame said they recognized that the paper had serious personnel difficulties and said they understood why the student government decided to shut it down.

The paper will resume publishing in the fall, with only one returning staff member. Orty said she was considering an appeal of an additional student government ruling barring her from working on The Overview.