Canadian student newspaper faces eviction from its office space on campus

WATERLOO — A Canadian student newspaper could be kicked out of the campus office that it has held for 37 years, a move the paper’s editors are attributing to their critical coverage of the university’s student union.

The Imprint, the University of Waterloo’s independent newspaper, received a notice of lease termination at the beginning of May, with no warning or previous discussion, said Megan Nourse, a board member of Imprint Publications and a former student journalist at the paper.

The paper tried to negotiate a new lease, she said, but the student union, known as the Federation of Students (or Feds), offered the paper a space that’s about half the size of its current office in a less-visible basement. Other potential options the Feds had offered included eviction from the student union or an increase in rent of more than 70 percent, according to a letter from the Imprint board of directors.

The Imprint must vacate its current office by Oct. 31, and the Feds want the paper in the basement before the fall term begins, said Aliya Kanani, executive editor of The Imprint.

“We have been provided with no reason for the termination,” Nourse said in an email. “Obviously the relationship between campus press and student unions are bound to be tense but should still operate with a level of mutual respect and professionalism.”

In a blog post in early July, Carly McCready, vice president of operations and finance for the Federation of Students, wrote that the Feds recognizes the value of a student newspaper.

“Feds has many student volunteers, just as Imprint does, and understands what an enriching experience being part of a student organization is for them,” she wrote. She added that she has met with staffers from Imprint several times to hear their feedback, and the Feds is currently in negotiations with the paper.

“No final decision has been made,” McCready wrote. “Feds evaluates each tenant’s renewal based on a number of criteria, such as student space needs, rent, optimizing utility of space, building traffic, etc. and does so in confidential session.”

Editors at the Imprint believe that the lease termination is in response to the paper’s critical coverage of some of the student union’s activities.

Kanani said in an email that after the paper published a story about the Feds considering a larger-than-usual student fee increase behind closed doors, the Feds asked the Imprint to take the story down. A few days later, she said, the Feds pulled advertising money from the paper.

Nourse also said the Feds limited student journalists’ access to interviews and information.

The news of the lease termination has caused an outcry on social media, with supporters and former Imprint staffers tweeting with the hashtag #LetImprintStay.

In a joint letter, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the Canadian Association of Journalists, and the Canadian University Press wrote that they are concerned by the situation, and that it is the responsibility of the university and student government to promote and protect the right to free expression on campus.

“The tactics being used in negotiations with Imprint — of either doubling their rent, forcing them into a significantly smaller office, or removing them from the student building entirely — appear designed to reduce the newspaper’s viability and reach, and are thus at odds with these principles,” the letter stated. “Regardless of the motive, this action puts freedom of speech and freedom of the press at risk on campus.”

In an online petition, The Imprint has gathered more than 700 signatures asking the Feds to let the newspaper stay in its current space.

“Our next step is just to keep raising awareness that this is happening so that students can voice their feelings on the issues,” Kanani said. “Hopefully that leads to Feds reconsidering their decision. We’re also hoping that the university demonstrates that it values having independent media thriving on campus.”

Student press rights in Canada

The incident has highlighted some of the differences between Canadian and American press freedoms.

Arshy Mann, former national bureau chief at the Canadian University Press, a national co-operative of student papers, said it’s not uncommon for student unions to “bully” student newspapers with threats to cut funding, hike rent prices, or evict the paper from its offices.

In Canada, student unions are typically separate from the university, Mann said in an interview. The unions govern student societies, which historically included student newspapers. But over the years, he said, student newspapers began to operate more independently from student unions, which has often led to clashes over editorial coverage.

Independent student newspapers often remain dependent on student unions for office space or advertising revenue, he said. Because of this, student unions still can — and often do, he said — punish independent newspapers for unfavorable coverage.

A couple of years ago, the University of Western Ontario’s independent campus newspaper, The Gazette, almost lost its office space that it had occupied for 40 years. The University Students’ Council had planned to turn the editorial office into a multi-faith prayer room. The Gazette editors had raised the concern that the student government’s motives behind the switch were related to the paper issuing a B-minus grade for the executive administration.

The student government eventually decided to allow The Gazette to remain in its office space. But Mann said it’s not uncommon for student unions to effectively shut down a student newspaper.

In 2008, The Gleaner, an independent student newspaper of Langara College, had to shut down because the students’ union cut the paper’s funding and more than doubled its rent.

“They couldn’t afford it, and now they don’t exist,” Mann said. He said he is worried that the same thing could happen to the Imprint.

In a SPLC Report magazine article in 2010, Katie Maloney reported on varying student press freedoms across the world, including in Canada.

Contact staff writer Madeline Will by email or at 202-833-4614.