Wichita State promises paper will get its funds; task force to continue review this fall

KANSAS — The student newspaper at Wichita State Universitywill receive its funds as normal in October, but paper staffers remain concernedabout a task force formed in response to complaints about the paper’squality.

Sunflower News editors first learned about the task force in late March,as they were preparing to go through the usual student government fundingprocess. SGA adviser Cheryl Adams sent a document to Sunflower Editor inChief Todd Vogts explaining the Student Fees Committee’s concerns about thepaper.

Some of the problems cited in the document include “inaccuracy inreporting,” “featuring one-sided stories,” “advertising other universities” anda “lack of news content.” The committee recommended reviewing the paper’sstructure because it “appears no one is verifying authenticity of material” and”there is a lack of compliance with professional standards,” according to thedocument.

The committee approved funds for the paper’s operations next year but saidit would withhold the money until a separate task force was appointed and “thetask force recommendation is approved by the Student Fees committee.”

Sunflower editors initially were concerned that condition meant thepaper would not get its money until the task force completed its work. But afterthe task force was appointed, university President Donald Beggs assured thepaper it would receive its funds as normal, along with all other studentgroups.

The seven-member task force includes two student government officers, twosenior administrators, two communication faculty members — including thedirector of the communication school — and the university’s generalcounsel.

The Sunflower was invited to appoint two members to the committeebut declined to do so after speaking with Student Press Law Center attorneys.Vogts said the paper did not want to appear to be “condoning or approving” thetask force’s work by joining the panel.

Vogts, whose term as editor is ending, attended the task force’s firstmeeting as an observer on Monday and said he was somewhat reassured by what hesaw. The communication professors seemed to have a “strong voice” on thecommittee and argued that including some of the committee’s content concerns inthe review might violate the First Amendment, Vogts said.

Ron Kopita, Wichita State’s vice president for campus life and universityrelations, said he knew from the beginning that some of the Student FeesCommittee’s concerns might cross the line into areas protected by the FirstAmendment. Kopita, who appointed the task force but does not serve on it, saidthe panel now has narrowed its inquiry to focus on evaluating theSunflower‘s structure, such as clarifying the role of the publicationsboard that oversees the paper.

But Kopita said the panel’s assessment would address other topics as well,such as whether the Sunflower‘s staff is overstretched and whether thepaper’s general process of “quality control” is adequate.

Reviewing such topics is not an infringement on the paper’s constitutionalrights, Kopita said.

“I think it’s a First Amendment issue if we start to complain about whatthey’re writing,” Kopita said, but “there’s nothing that this committee’s goingto do that’s going to intrude on subject matter.”

But Adam Goldstein, the SPLC’s attorney advocate, said that is too narrowan interpretation of the First Amendment’s restrictions on publicuniversities.

“Content is what appears printed on the page,” Goldstein said. “It’s morethan subject matter.”

The review panel will meet again in the fall. Kopita said the committeewould not force the paper to cooperate with the review but that it would be”counterproductive” not to. And he said it is too early to speculate about whatthe task force might recommend or whether any of those recommendations might bebinding on the Sunflower.

Now that the paper is guaranteed to get its funds for next year, Vogts saidhis main concern is what role the task force or its recommendations will playthe next time the Sunflower goes through the funding process.

“To me it doesn’t seem like we’re out of the woods yet,” Vogts said.