Student government at California university puts student newspaper on ‘temporary hiatus’ because of ‘quality and professionalism’ concerns

CALIFORNIA — The student government at the University of Redlands voted earlier this month to place the institution’s student-run newspaper on “temporary hiatus” over concerns about the paper’s “quality and professionalism.” One editor at the newspaper said the decision to defund the Bulldog Weekly was retaliation for an article about a new scholarship. The story quoted a student saying the fund was for “rich, white males.”

The Associated Students of the University of Redlands Cabinet voted 13-2 on Dec. 10 to put the paper on a hiatus “for the ultimate purpose of making it better,” ASUR Cabinet Advisor Denise Davis said. The student organization provides about $40,000 each year to cover the newspaper’s printing costs and student salaries.

“The ASUR decided, among other things, that the paper is not of acceptable journalistic quality, is not a good representation of students’ voices and may represent wasted funds,” Davis said.

Davis said the student government conducted a semester-long review and “read every single issue from this past semester” to determine that the newspaper contained “journalism flaws and some misquoting and some erroneous articles.”

In addition to a lapse in the newspaper’s quality, Davis said the newspaper’s distribution manager had been discouraged by low circulation. Additionally, Davis said the decision came at a time when the student government was undertaking a revision of its communication branches, which include the yearbook, radio station and newspaper.

But Morgan York, who served as co-editor of the newspaper at the private liberal arts college in southern California, argued the weekly publication’s quality did not prompt the hiatus.

“The staff has done great work this year, and any mistakes we have made have been fairly minor, and standard for most newspapers,” York said in a post on the newspaper’s Facebook page, adding that the relationship between the newspaper and the university was the problem. “There lingers a sentiment that the paper ought to be the mouthpiece of the university. Fact is, it isn’t our job to say what the administration wants us to say. Period.”

Co-editors York and Taylor Holmes said by email that they did not want to comment further until they have a “firmer understanding of the direction this ‘hiatus’ is taking.”

This past semester, Davis said the Bulldog Weekly published an article highlighting troubles students had when registering for spring classes. But the article, she said, was “ill-researched” and the reporter “didn’t talk to the people like the associate dean,” who helped more than 100 students sign up for the classes they needed when the online system didn’t work.

“They just reported on a situation without actually digging deep in terms of getting facts and painted the university in a light that wasn’t representative of the actual hard work that went into helping students register for classes.”

On Nov. 10 the newspaper published an article about the new Hunsaker Scholarship Prize, which was established after Richard and Virginia Hunsaker donated $35 million to the university. In the article, students questioned whether the scholarship would target a diverse demographic of students.

One students said the qualifications for the scholarship are subjective and is “targeted at a very specific group — rich, white males — and it’s all for incoming freshmen.”

Because the Hunsakers were set to visit campus, York said in her Facebook post, Vice President and Dean of Student Life Char Burgess directed the ASUR president and others to remove the copies of the newspaper from common areas for that day.

Burgess did not respond to telephone calls requesting comment.

When members of the student government flagged the article, they asked the reporter to share her notes. However, her notes didn’t contain the quote.

When the newspaper adviser was reviewing the reporter’s notes, Davis said, she suggested the reporter go back and probe for more information and ask the students if they were specifically talking about rich, white males.

“The writer went back to the student quoted and asked ‘is this what you mean? Do you mean to say that this scholarship is only for rich, white males?’’’ Davis said. “This is the story we’ve been given which we’ve taken to mean that they put words in the student’s mouth.”

University of Redlands currently does not offer any journalism classes, but Davis said the institution could move the newspaper into a classroom setting led by a journalism professor. The class could be available to students by the fall semester next year.

“Though the administration is not outright saying it, this is censorship,” York said in the Facebook post. “This is a power play.”

Although students at private colleges do not have the benefit of the federal First Amendment, California’s “Leonard Law,” Education Code Sec. 94367, gives private-college students statutory protection that is comparable, prohibiting the “prior restraint” of student speech or any punitive action on the grounds of legally protected speech.

SPLC staff writer Mark Keierleber can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.