West Georgia SGA passes bill to freeze money to student newspaper after publishing anti-Greek column

GEORGIA — The editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and agroup of students at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton are protestinga series of proposals by the Student Government Association that would cutfunding for the paper.

Editor-in-Chief Ellis Smith first heard about budget cuts April 23 when thenew student body President Alan Webster proposed a bill that would temporarilyfreeze funding to the paper. The bill, called “Suspension of ‘the WestGeorgian,'” was passed the day after the newspaper ran Jacob Lovell’s column“Join a Frat with Buck Futter, Jr.” The opinion piece satirically stereotypedsocial fraternities and sororities on campus, leading to a vocal backlash fromthe Greek community.

Although the bill would temporarily cut all funding to the newspaper, Smithbecame more concerned over the Student Activity Fee Budget Allocation (SAFBA)committee’s recommendation to cut the West Georgian funding by $11,500for fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1.

The budget proposal for next year cuts $7,000 for the newspaper on thegrounds that it was allotted for a faculty adviser position. The SAFBA committeesaid it was against policy to use student fees to pay faculty. The TheaterDepartment also requested money for a staff position and was denied. Smith saidthe newspaper has been paying a staff adviser for years and could not understandwhy the budget was cut this year.

However, an additional $4,500 cut from the newspaper’s budget was notexplained in the committee’s documents. In its recommendations to cut funding,SAFBA wrote only “the West Georgian has not been responsive this past year tothe needs of students.”

Smith filed an open-records request to see all documents pertaining to theproposed cut, but in all the documents received, no explanation is given for theadditional $4,500 loss. No minutes were taken at the meeting.

The SAFBA committee is a majority-student board that recommends a budgetfor use of student activity fee money, totaling over $1.1 million. The group iscomposed of the student body president and treasurer, four at-large studentsselected by SGA, and four college staff members — two as non-votingmembers — according to an e-mail received in the records request.

“The previous behavior of key SAFBA committee members, combined with thelanguage they used in their recommendation, clearly points to a First Amendmentviolation,” Smith wrote in an appeal to the vice president.

Smith said issues with the SGA began after previous articles uncoveredproblems in student government — including one in spring 2008 that led toa well-known professor being fired — and riled SGA officials to publiclyprotest against the West Georgian and attempt to have Smith fired. RobKelly, who recently ended his term as president of the SGA, and TreasurerElizabeth Anderson also are members of a Facebook group called “Students againstthe biases of The West Georgian,” Smith said in his letter.

“If you just play a little game of connect-the-dots, to me it becomesclearer and clearer that it’s just a campaign to shut-down speech that theydon’t agree with,” Smith said.

To smooth over relations with Kelly and the previous SGA, Smith offered thegroup a half page in the weekly newspaper, but the group rarely submitted anycontent.

“It turns out it’s just too hard to contribute to the discussion,” Smithsaid.

Smith had been trying to work “within the process” to resolve the problemsbetween the two groups. The SGA suggested the paper have a Web master, a newpaid position that now has to be cut with the decreased funding. He also saidthe SGA suggested the paper hire a paid adviser — yet that was the reasongiven for $7,000 of the funding cut.

SGA President Webster said it was more than just Greeks who were upset byLovell’s column and that problems with the newspaper culminated with thecontroversial piece. Smith agreed that the newspaper had angered other groups oncampus before. Both said the column was “the straw that broke the camel’sback.”

The story attracted over 200 comments from readers, caused a rise in thepaper’s online hits from a usual 30,000 to 35,000, and bumped the WestGeorgian from 65th to 61st on College Publisher’s most read studentnewspapers — above Arizona State University and Harvard — accordingto Smith.

Since the West Georgian published the column, both supporters ofGreek life and the student newspaper began campaigns to find a way to squelchthe uproar on campus.

The Greek community turned to the SGA, the head of which is a fraternitymember. Webster, with help from former President Kelly, drafted the bill tofreeze newspaper funding after hearing about the column from another fraternitymember at the University of Auburn in Alabama.

“That’s when I was like, you know we’ve got to find some sort of code ofethics or standards about what gets published,” Webster said.

The bill recommends that the university take further steps to make anoutlet “to extend interesting, informative, accurate and responsible informationin a manner that sheds positive light on the University.”

“It’s very clear to me that their goal is not to contribute to thediscussion, but it is to tear down the discussion,” Smith said. “It’s to removepeople’s ability to say things they don’t agree with. What they want, andthey’ve said this quite openly, is a tool that’s going to bring unity anddiversity and reflect well on the school — in other words, a publicrelations department for the school and for them.”

Richard Eells, a student at UWG and not a member of the newspaper, createda group on Facebook called “Save the West Georgian — SGA must be stopped!”and attracted 497 members in less than a week. Eells said when the group reaches500 members he would appeal to the university president.

“I am just a concerned student that is voicing the worries [of] a group ofstudents,” Eells said in a message.

Smith said Lovell typically wrote opinion pieces that would upset somepeople, but he continued to publish the columns because he was not going tocensor even though he may have disagreed with the viewpoint.

“I only agreed to run the article because I don’t censor things based ontheir opinion,” Smith said. “I think it was very entertaining, and I think a lotof people liked it.”

Webster said he based his decision to propose the bill on the reactions andcomments he was getting from the student body at large.

“Its not that we’re saying what they can and cannot publish, but … it’swithin our parameters to voice strong student opinion, and student opinion thatgets voiced in the West Georgian is most often times a very small sect ofgeneral student opinion,” Webster said. “The feedback that I was getting fromlarge groups of people, that (the bill) was the proper step at that time. …We’re not trying to infringe on anyone’s First Amendment rights. We just want tomake sure that they don’t publish faulty information.”

Smith said although the SGA passed the suspension bill, he does not thinkthe university president will agree to it, but he worries he has not received aresponse from the university on the issue.

According to Webster, the bill has been passed along to university lawyersbefore it can be approved, but he hopes the administration will use the summerto come up with a “code” for the newspaper. He claims the paper has, on multipleoccasions, printed defamatory and libelous content. although he could not citespecific examples.

“To us, it’s not an issue of the First Amendment,” Webster said. “It’s anissue of just having a code of ethics, conduct, whatever you want to call it.It’s just standards about what you put into print.”

But Executive Director Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center saidthe Supreme Court has made it clear that student money cannot be withheld from agroup because of a viewpoint.

“It could not be clearer that the newspaper here was singled out forretaliation because some people in student government were stung by thenewspaper’s coverage and disagreed with editorial judgments about whatcolumns to publish,” LoMonte said. “Whether you agree with their taste or not,everything the editors did was protected activity under the First Amendment, andwhen you hold public money hostage to punish lawful expression, that’s atextbook violation of the First Amendment.”

Smith agreed that the bill was in direct response to Lovell’s opinion.

“I don’t know if you could have a more direct response to a piece ofcontent than making it illegal the next day to publish anymore,” he said.

With classes out for summer and the paper no longer publishing printeditions until the next school year, Smith said he is not so worried about thesuspension bill, but rather the bigger question of funding cuts.

After receiving the information regarding the newspaper’s budget cut, Smithwrote to the Dean of Students and Vice President Melanie McClellan to addresshis concerns.

McClellan said she was not aware of what was going on with the WestGeorgian and SGA, but she agreed to create a task force to review SAFBApolicies. McClellan also plans to investigate Smith’s charges of First Amendmentviolations, but could not comment further at the time.

She did say that to her recollection the university president had nevergone against the recommendations made by SAFBA, and that the recommendations inquestion had been approved but had not taken effect.

Smith says the budget cuts will result in little to no pay for studentreporters and editors, and possibly a later start date for publication in thesemester. He also said he was considering legal options.

“If this goes through and the university doesn’t do the right thing, I willbe happy to stand in a courtroom with anybody who wants to take this on,” hesaid. “I think it’s a ridiculous situation, and I hope they (the university) dothe right thing.”

Webster said he hopes, with a “code,” the newspaper will continue printingnext fall. He plans to write the weekly piece for the print edition, as he faces”the task of uniting the student body somehow.”

Kelly did not return e-mails for a comment by press time. Campus CenterDirector Linda Picklesimer, a non-voting member of SAFBA, declined to commentwhen reached.