Online comments policy prompts Va. Tech to threaten newspaper's funding

VIRGINIA — The Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech(EMCVT) is fighting back against the university’s threat of financialconsequences if the student newspaper does not reconsider allowing anonymouscomments on its Web site.

EMCVT General Manager Kelly Wolff said the pressure from the college is aform of blackmail.

“The issue is that the law, and our binding legal contract with theuniversity, says the university will not assert editorial control over thepublications,” Wolff said.

The letter from the university, dated Feb. 8, details the Commission onStudent Affairs’ opinion of the anonymous posting feature on the Web siteof the student newspaper, the Collegiate Times. It also cites the

“discontent among students, faculty, staff, administrators andothers.” The letter was written by Michelle McLeese, chair of theCommission.

Collegiate Times Editor-in-Chief Sara Mitchell said the commentsare “community moderated,” but are not edited before being posted.However, if a reader “flags” a comment, the paper’s publiceditor evaluates whether the comment should be “buried bymoderation,” in which case the comment is not deleted but made so readersmust intentionally click a link to read it.

McLeese also wrote that after a conversation between Commission members,faculty, administrators and members of the editorial staff at the CollegiateTimes, the paper made no changes, which led the Commission to propose theactions in the letter.

These proposed actions include not renewing a contract under which theEMCVT receives some funding from the university, “until the Commission hasresolved its discontent with the CT and its online commentingsystem.”

However, in the EMCVT’s response letter, written by Wolff, she saysthe agreement between the EMCVT and the university stipulates 24 months notice”to rescind or to begin renegotiations” of the contract.

Mitchell said cutting funding to the EMCVT will not hurt the CollegiateTimes as much as other media outlets on campus that fall under the EMCVTumbrella. “The funding that we get from the university does notdirectly go to the [Collegiate Times] as much as it does to the otherdivisions within EMCVT, such as the yearbook, radio station, TV station,literary magazine and so those are the ones that would, in essence, probably behit more immediately, not to say that we wouldn’t feel that,”Mitchell said.

The more important message being sent by these threats, Mitchell added, isthat the university does not view the paper as a useful or legitimate resource.

The Commission also suggested disallowing the Budget Boards at VirginiaTech to provide funds to any student organizations to place advertisements inthe Collegiate Times, McLeese wrote in the letter. The Commission willvote on this matter Feb. 18. McLeese did not return calls by press time.

“We defend students’ free speech rights no matter what,”Wolff said, adding the students on the paper’s staff are the only oneswhose opinions matter when deciding the paper’s policy on anonymousposting, not hers and not the school’s.

If the university follows through with its proposed actions, Wolff saidthe EMCVT would pursue legal action.

“The issue is: Students decide if [comments] are anonymous.Period,” she said.