Talk of ‘strategic partnership’ with Gannett leaves student paper’s staffers on edge at Colorado State University

A closed meeting Jan. 22 between leaders of the Gannett-owned newspaper theColoradoan and Colorado State University officials left some studentnewspaper staffers outraged that they were excluded.

Staff members at The Rocky Mountain Collegian are worried themeeting was the first step toward Gannett, a national commercial media chainthat owns USA Today, among other outlets, buying the studentnewspaper.

Collegian staff members also are suspicious about the motivation behind theGannett talks, coming just months after a nationally publicized controversy overthe student paper’s profane editorial broadside at President Bush.

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SPLC View: Under any circumstances, talk of a large, national,commercial media company buying a student-edited, student-funded newspaper atpublic university would be big news, sure to raise eyebrows. That the rumors ofGannett looking to acquire the Rocky Mountain Collegian are taking placenow — behind closed doors and just months after a very public and heateddebate about the newspaper’s editorial freedom — should not just raiseeyebrows, but set off alarm bells.

In November, Jim Landers, the then-interim president of the Board ofStudent Communications at Colorado State, floated around the idea of revisingthe board’s policy to allow it to punish students for the use of “indecent,vulgar or so called ‘four-letter’ words,” a change that almost certainly wouldhave violated the law. Landers was quoted saying that “as publisher, [the board]has ultimate authority. This reflects reality. In the real world, which theCollegian is supposed to prepare you for, an editor works for a publisher.”Three weeks later, Landers withdrew his proposal and resigned, citing tensionsbetween him and the student paper. Jeff Browne, director of CSU’s student media,who criticized the proposal, was quoted as saying he understood the frustrationthe board had with having the responsibilities of a publisher, yet not havingthe editorial powers to control content that one would have at a commercialnewspaper. He noted correctly, however, that as a government body, the board’sability to censor otherwise lawful content was and should be limited by theFirst Amendment.

It is worrisome, to say the least, that CSU officials may view”privatizing” this public asset as a way of indirectly removing the protectedstatus of speech that they were unable to censor directly. While in othercircumstances there may be merits to freeing a student publication from theshackles of university oversight (and many a student publication has thrived asa stand-alone business), the timing and secrecy accompanying this proposal reekof bad intentions. Without addressing the even larger, complicated issue of thepropriety of private, commercial companies taking over the helm ofstudent-edited newspapers, this proposed sale is taking place at the wrong timeand under the wrong circumstances.