Journalists are trained to value and defend freedom of speech for everyone, even those with extreme views whose opinions may offend listeners. But when speakers use the student media to mock or criticize minority groups, student journalists have faced backlash from their campuses that can put college financial support at risk.
The dilemma facing student editors played out most recently at Virginia Tech’s student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, which faced a threat to its university funding because of online reader comments that were deemed offensive.
After months of discussion about the Times’ anonymous online commenting system, a school governance commission recommended that student media have its contract with the university discontinued, which could have resulted in the loss of office space and $70,000 in funds.
In a letter dated Feb. 8, Michelle McLeese, chairperson for the Commission on Student Affairs (CSA), wrote that the commission enacted a verbal resolution asking the university to non-renew the financial contract with Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech (EMCVT), a non-profit organization that oversees student media.
According to documents provided by the Collegiate Times, the CSA also discussed cutting off all university-subsidized advertising in the Times by student organizations until the reader commenting policy changed.
”It would have been pretty devastating,” said Kelly Furnas, who was editorial adviser for EMCVT during the controversy. ”That $70,000 directly subsidizes student media divisions that can’t support themselves through traditional models.”
Furnas said the literary magazine and the radio station would have been hit hardest by the cuts.
”Ironically, the newspaper is the one organization that helps subsidize the other media organizations, as well as the professional staff,” Furnas said.
McLeese said the CSA was concerned that the newspaper’s commenting system was not holding anyone accountable, and that some comments in the past had been ”impersonating, libelous, hate speech and putting down other racial or ethnic groups.” She said that once the commission found out that the resolution might breach the contract between EMCVT and the university, the CSA decided not to pursue it.
Defining ”hate speech”
Hate speech can be very damaging to an individual, but if you suppress all speech in reaction to hate speech, you lose the opportunity for people to look more closely at issues and discuss them as a community, said Dennis Tarker, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union.
”They always say that one of the best ways to sanitize something is to expose it to sunlight, and I think you could make an argument that one of the best ways to deal with something that is as harmful and hurtful as hate speech is to drag it out in the open and expose it to discussion and debate and serious consideration,” Tarker said.
Tarker said although there is no perfect answer to how student journalists should handle hate speech issues on their campus or on their websites, he encourages them to promote dialogue. He is uncomfortable with the idea of completely cutting off commentary from online users in reaction to hate speech.
”That’s one of the most useful ways that technology has changed information — by making it interactive — and from a purely educational and communications point of view, that’s one of the great things about blogs and comments and things like that is that, is that it gives people the chance to react,” Tarker said.
While it may sound appealing to ban ”hate speech,” that term has no precise legal definition, and even hateful comments fall within the First Amendment, said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center.
”Unless speech is a threat or is otherwise constitutionally unprotected, we don’t draw the line at all,” Goldstein said.
Surviving campus backlash
The Collegiate Times is not the only student media outlet that has faced a financial threat due to edgy content that offended audience members. In February, the student government president at the University of California-San Diego froze funding to all student media outlets, demanding that each of them agree to abide by civil-speech standards.
The controversy — which eventually died down, with full funding restored to the organizations — originated when a campus television station aired a comedy program in which staffers of a raunchy UCSD student humor magazine, The Koala, joked about a fraternity party that had a racially offensive theme.
At Virginia Tech, the funding controversy attracted the attention and support of free-speech organizations around the country, including the Society of Professional Journalists, which weighed in with a letter of support for the Times.
The bulk of the complaints began after several comments were posted anonymously, including some about Asian students, on a Collegiate Times online article about an annual Diversity Summit focusing on the Asian and Asian American community, said Peter Velz, editor-in-chief of the Times.
The comments for the Collegiate Times’ website can be flagged by readers and moderated by the public editor. The editor can choose to bury the comment so that people have to click on it to read it.
The comments that may be buried include anything ”degrading or obscene with the intention to intimidate or harass, contain spam, lack any sort of structure, or have any sort of advertisement, not contain a questionable link to another website, contain profanity or variations of profanity.”
”The idea is that it shapes the discussion to the point, where if you just take a quick glace at it, there’s nothing obscene, or intimidating, or tries to harass anyone,” Velz said. ”The only time we remove a comment is if the comment itself makes an illegal claim or something that makes a libelous claim against a person or the university.”
Velz said he didn’t personally think that the comments were a form of hate speech.
”In general, the comments weren’t (hate speech) because, within the context of the articles, they were just immature writing,” Velz said. ”Outside of the newspaper, as an Internet user, those are comments that I would just disregard immediately. I don’t think they were trying to be taken seriously, they were just trying to provoke.”
However, if someone posted an online comment that contained hate speech, Velz said that comment would probably just be buried instead of removed.
”In a way, since that’s shown on the website, you might be able to argue that it’s protected, but I don’t think a lot of users on the website look at those comments and think that they reflect poorly on the newspaper or poorly on Virginia Tech,” Velz said. ”What it reflects poorly on is this random person in their basement typing away these stupid comments.”
In a memorandum dated March 30, the management staff of the Collegiate Times decided to clarify the paper’s online comment policy. They also announced that they would meet with individual members of CSA, but not the commission as a whole.
”We didn’t want to have a situation where there were 20 people talking at us,” Velz said. ”We sort of wanted to turn the tables around and say ‘You’re going to let us speak and you’re going to listen and if you have questions you can ask us.’ We wanted to be as clear as possible that this is our policy.”
The EMCVT recommended the Collegiate Times’ staff put all communication in writing, not just because of potential legal problems and threats to students’ First Amendment rights, but because of miscommunication. Furnas said there was miscommunication on both sides about the issue.
”The most challenging aspect was what we called the ‘game of telephone’ we were facing with all the parties,” Furnas said.
McLeese said that the CSA sought professional mediation with the EMCVT but was refused.
”We recognize that they have the legal rights to continue with a non-registration system and it’s safe to say that the commission appreciates all of the effort that was put into that document,” McLeese said.
Velz and the former editor-in-chief met with McLeese at the end of the year and discussed the commenting system and the paper in general. Overall, Velz said he is satisfied with how things ended last semester.
”I think the groundwork is there for the Collegiate Times to act independently and for the CSA to understand what our relationship is with the university,” Velz said.
In February, the Virginia Tech administration rejected the recommendations by the CSA to cut funding to EMCVT. Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations, said the contract between the university and EMCVT will not change.
”When this first started, I think you had a group of people who had given some passing thought to the value of anonymous comments,” Furnas said. ”When the issue came to a head, they really began to investigate and delve into why they thought that way. And now I think they’ve done so much research on the issue that I really believe they’ve come to a very deeply held conviction.”
By Kelsey Ryan, SPLC staff writer