From freeze to freedom

After years of struggling to be released from the financial reins of the Student Government Association, the student paper at Montclair State University finally gained independence from the SGA ‘ but it was no easy feat.The Montclarion and SGA became embroiled in a dispute this year beginning in January when the SGA froze the Montclarion’s funds and culminating in the school’s administration stepping in and announcing the paper will be separated from the SGA by July 1.The Montclarion, which has been entirely funded by the SGA, was unable to publish its first issue of the semester when SGA leaders decided to freeze the paper’s budget on Jan. 22. A letter sent to the paper from SGA President Ron Chicken cited the “unauthorized hiring” of Montclarion attorney Sal M. Anderton, and the withholding of correspondence between the paper and Anderton, as reasons for the budget freeze. Chicken fired Anderton in November.Chicken told the SPLC in December he fired the attorney because the contract between the Montclarion and Anderton had not been properly authorized by the SGA. But the paper reported the SGA had approved $5,000 for Montclarion legal fees in its operating budget. Anderton was advising the paper on its claim that a closed SGA session violated state open meeting laws. Montclarion Editor in Chief Karl de Vries described the budget freeze as “a petty, personal vendetta.”During a five-hour meeting on Jan. 31, SGA legislators voted to release some of the Montclarion’s funds for 30 days ‘ enough to print the paper and buy office supplies. Negotiations between the paper and SGA failed during their only mediation session on Feb. 26.The next day, university President Susan A. Cole announced the Montclarion would separate from the SGA by July 1. Cole also said the school would ensure enough funds for the paper to continue printing for the rest of the semester.”The Montclarion has come to the conclusion that its relationship to the SGA poses an unacceptable obstacle to a free press,” Cole said in a statement to the SGA. “I agree with the underlying principle that government and a free press must remain separate.”Some SGA members were less than thrilled with Cole’s announcement and the involvement of administrators in the dispute.”I do support them being independent, however, I do not think that this situation between the SGA and the Montclarion was ground for them to be separate,” said Diana Salameh, SGA chief of staff.History of disagreementThe Montclarion’s relationship with SGA has also been tense in the past. In a December 2006 editorial, the Montclarion called for the resignation of former SGA treasurer Maria Soares when she was facing impeachment charges for not fulfilling her official duties. Soares remained in office and attempted to freeze the paper’s budget in February 2007, allegedly in response to the newspaper’s overspending.The SGA president and legislators at the time overruled Soares’ decision. De Vries called for the separation of the paper from the SGA in an editorial after the incident.The paper’s separation from the SGA had been, for years, a goal that de Vries and Montclarion editors in chief before him had fought for ‘ efforts that had thus far been fruitless. And for his part, de Vries said he remains “cautiously optimistic” about a Montclarion independent from the SGA.The administration and the Montclarion still are ironing out the details of the paper’s separation from the SGA, said Minne Ho, director of communications at Montclair State. The paper and university are developing a new charter for the Montclarion, which may include a new student media board. The university also is considering separating the student radio station, WMSC, from the SGA, Ho said.The Montclarion “probably will be supported by student fees to begin with and then move toward a revenue-based model,” she said.De Vries said the paper did not yet make enough advertising revenue to fund itself, and funding remains the paper’s biggest concern. The SGA will continue to fund the paper until formal separation.”The most important thing is that the student fee is mandatory, that the newspaper is guaranteed funding,” he said. “That’s not an optional thing.”Although the Montclarion’s relations with the SGA remain less than warm, de Vries said there is less “open hostility” between the two. De Vries will be passing on the torch to a new editor in chief in June.”It’s difficult to say if we’ve accomplished anything so far,” he said. “There’s still plenty that could go wrong.”