NEW JERSEY – The president of Montclair State University’sStudent Government Association fired the student newspaper’s attorney inNovember, arguing that the contract between the SGA-sponsored Montclarionand its attorney was improper under SGA bylaws.
The Montclarion had retained Sal M. Anderton as its attorney inJanuary. The $5,000 retainer was funded in the student government’s generaloperating budget under a line labeled “Montclarion Legal Fees,” the paperreported Dec. 6; similar budget items had been passed each year since spring2005.
SGA President Ronald Chicken told the Student Press Law Center that hefirst became concerned about the arrangement in August, after meeting withEditor in Chief Karl de Vries and Anderton. But Chicken did not attempt toformally dismiss Anderton until Nov. 15, a day after de Vries publicly objectedto an SGA motion to go into closed session. According to The Montclarion,de Vries argued that doing so would violate New Jersey’s Open Public MeetingsAct and said the SGA could “face legal reprimand.”
The day after the meeting, Chicken sent a letter formally dismissingAnderton to the attorney’s former office address. Anderton received the letterNov. 30, The Montclarion said.
Chicken told the SPLC that he had already decided to dismiss Anderton inOctober, but that he believed it became more urgent to do so after the Nov. 14meeting to prevent the newspaper from “illegally” spending any more funds onlegal fees. Any valid contract to spend SGA funds must be signed by thepresident, Chicken said. Although the student legislature previously had paidAnderton, the retainer agreement between Anderton and The Montclarion wassigned only by de Vries, making the contract illegal, Chicken said.
The Montclarion officially is a media organization of the SGA,receiving about $34,000 a year directly from the SGA out of a total annualbudget of about $76,000. Although the paper’s advertising revenue is earmarkedfor The Montclarion‘s use, “it’s all SGA money,” de Vries said.
“There’s no money that is ours, so to speak,” de Vries said, making itimpossible for the newspaper to spend money to hire its own lawyer without SGAapproval.
In a Montclarion editorial, de Vries decried Chicken’s action as athreat to free expression.
“In dismissing the student newspaper’s legal protection, Chicken hasencroached upon the rights of not just student editors at MSU, but all studentsin general,” de Vries wrote. “Because when The Montclarion is deniedlegal representation, free speech at this campus finds itself on the endangeredspecies list.”
But de Vries said he doubted the paper could gather enough support in thestudent legislature to reverse Chicken’s decision.
“Under the current structure, we have really no recourse against what Rondid,” de Vries told the SPLC. The paper currently is seeking an attorney willing to represent the paper for free onits open-meeting challenge throughthe SPLC’s Attorney Referral Network .
Chicken said it was inappropriate for The Montclarion to hire itsown lawyer because it, like all other SGA organizations, is represented by theSGA’s own attorney, and thus cannot hire a separate lawyer to challenge itsparent organization.
“The newspaper is part of the SGA,” Chicken said. “It’s entirely part ofthe Student Government Association. I think that is a large factor that has beenleft out of this press coverage entirely.”
Any student organization that wants legal advice must submit its request tothe SGA president, who can discuss the matter with the SGA attorney, Chickensaid. He said disputes between the paper and the student government should behandled by the SGA’s internal judicial process, but that the SGA lawyer woulddefend the paper against any outside lawsuits.
But de Vries said that arrangement does not effectively protect thenewspaper.
“It would seem that our biggest threat is going to be coming from thestudent government itself,” de Vries said.
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