Student government-led task force to review paper at Wichita State

KANSAS — The student newspaper at Wichita State Universitywill not receive funds until a student government-commissioned task forcecompletes a review of the publication.

The university student newspaper, The Sunflower News, on March 26received a proposed budget for the 2009 fiscal year from the Student Feescommittee. The committee allocates funds for student organizations andprograms.

The Student Fees committee is a seven-member panel composed of twoadministrators and five students. All of the students are either members of SGAor appointed by SGA.

Todd Vogts, editor in chief of The Sunflower, said he received thebudget the same day the task force proposal, which had to be approved by theStudent Government Association, was to be discussed in a student governmentmeeting. Vogts said the paper had no notice of the proposed review, but said heand other staff members were questioned about the content and operations of thenewspaper on March 13 by Ron Kopita, the Student Fees committee chairman and theschool’s vice president for campus life and university relations.

“We thought it was weird, but we didn’t think it was anything serious,”Vogts said.

The Sunflower receives nearly half of its funds from studentgovernment fees.

According to Vogts, an hour before the meeting he received a document fromSGA adviser Cheryl Adams outlining the rationale behind the proposed review ofthe paper’s operations.

The committee’s concerns included inaccurate reporting, presenting opinionpieces as though they were news stories and advertising other universities. Thecommittee also said they had concerns over The Sunflower’s operations andcited “lack of compliance with professional standards” and that “no one isverifying authenticity of material.”

The document stated that the committee intended to withhold funds untilKopita appoints a task force to “review Sunflower operations and makerecommendations for improvement” and the committee approves the recommendationsfrom the task force.

Vogts said no one has informed the paper what the process entails orwhether the recommendations will be binding upon the paper.

Kopita said he does not anticipate requirements being placed on the paperin order for it to receive funding this year. He said the task force andStudent Fees committee probably will complete the review before October, whenthe newspaper would normally receive its funds for the 2009 fiscal year.

“Even though they say they will be done by October we don’t know theywill,” said Robbie Norton, business manager for The Sunflower.

Norton said the paper was looking at ways to cut costs, including notpurchasing equipment and not attending a conference staffers usually go to inOctober.

Kopita said the Student Fees committee was responding to concerns bystudents about the quality of journalism at The Sunflower.

“I understand there have been mistakes. It is a student newspaper, thereare bound to be,” Norton said.

Norton said if mistakes are made a correction is printed in the next issue,and there are internal processes to deal with inaccurate or misleadingreporting.

Kopita said the situation with The Sunflower has been “bubbling forthe past several years,” and did not believe any specific incident prompted thecommittee to commission a review of the paper.

The newspaper has a different perspective.

“We think this is a violation of our First Amendment right and a form ofsoft censorship by withholding our funds in limbo,” Vogts said. “People don’tunderstand what we are trying to do as a free press by trampling upon our rightsas journalists.”

Kopita said the administration is not leading the initiative for review andthat it mainly came from student members of the committee. Kopita also saidfinal decisions regarding the use of student fees are made by universitypresident Donald Beggs, who has the power to veto any attempt to cut off fundingto the Sunflower.

Student Government Association President Allie Crouse referred the StudentPress Law Center to Kopita. The SPLC was unable to reach any other members ofthe SGA.