Student government's funding cuts jeopardize paper's future

FLORIDA — AFlorida university is slicing its campus newspaper’s budget almost in halffor the upcoming year, and a student editor said he considers the cuts paybackfor a longstanding rift between the paper and the school’s studentgovernment.

Florida Gulf Coast University President Bill Merwingave final approval to the Student Government Association’s organizationalbudget May 19, decreasing funding for the Eagle News from $35,750 to almost$18,700. The newspaper had originally requested about $93,000 for the 2006-07school year.

However, EagleNews editor in chief Rich Ritterbusch said the Student GovernmentAssociation requires the newspaper to provide them with full-page color ads,over which the student staff is allowed no editorial control, in each issue ofthe weekly paper. The ads cost the newspaper about $18,000 to print over thecourse of the year, and Ritterbusch said the Student GovernmentAssociation’s appropriations chair told him that this is how the studentgovernment created its funding figure for the newspaper for the upcomingyear.

”My opinion is that they have completely zeroed out thefunding for the paper,” Ritterbusch said.

Ritterbusch said hethinks the student government decided to axe funding to theEagle News because of information itprinted last fall regarding the Student Government Association’s ownoperating budget. Ritterbusch said the student government objected because thestory contained two errors, which the paper corrected in its next issue. Thestudent government also took issue with an answer in the newspaper’scrossword puzzle that contained the name of an FGCU student who had committed afelony. The Eagle News also apologizedfor the puzzle clue in its next issue.

”I have exercised agreat deal of restraint, in my opinion, over the last year, and I feel likethere has still been a pattern of harassment and punishment and attemptedcensorship,” Ritterbusch said. ”It’s coming to the point thatthey have kept pushing and pushing, far enough to try to push us right out ofbusiness.”

The funding cuts are not the result of any sort ofStudent Government Association budget crunch either, Ritterbusch said, since themoney it allocates comes from fees that all students must pay every year. Hesaid that because of a boost in school enrollment, the student governmentactually increased funding to almost all other organizations, except thenewspaper and campus radio station. Florida state statute requires studentgovernments, rather than university administrators, to allocate money toorganizations, and the law mentions student publications specifically asentities that student governments should fund.

FGCU StudentGovernment Association President Kirt Gallatin and Appropriations Chair KimZambito did not respond to e-mails requesting comment.

Susan Evans,spokeswoman for the university, said she and Merwin met with Ritterbusch on May9, before Merwin signed the budget, to discuss the funding issues. She said thatat this meeting, which Ritterbusch had initiated, Merwin suggested the paperresearch its options for becoming independent from theuniversity.

”Some of the student newspapers that have been mostsuccessful serve as an independent function from the university because theyhave that ability to say that the only people paying for this are theadvertisers, as opposed to the university student government,” Evans said.

”And the president encouraged him [Ritterbusch] to proceed along that lineand develop a business plan to make it a reality.”

She saidneither she nor Merwin see the approval of the budget as the university’staking a side on the issue.

Maria Roca, faculty adviser to theEagle News, said that the advertisingrevenue for the newspaper last year made up less than 50 percent of its overalloperating budget. She said the newspaper would like to become independent, butthe transition would probably take several years.

For now, bothRitterbusch and Roca said the newspaper staff is considering taking some sort oflegal action to regain the lost funding, but has so far made no definite plans.Roca said the staff does intend to send a bill to the Student GovernmentAssociation in the fall asking them to reconsider the cuts.

She saidshe is unsure about the paper’s ability to publish if the studentgovernment does not reinstate some funding.

”It’scertainly our goal to continue publishing,” Roca said. ”If we runout of money I don’t know what we’re going todo.”

Roca said the entire ordeal has beendisheartening.

”As a professor, it just amazes me that in thisday and age that these types of free speech issues, free press issues, continueto exist on college campuses,” Roca said. ”We should be the modelsfor free speech, it shouldn’t be happening in our own backyards.”