CONNECTICUT — Wesleyan University’s student government unanimously passed a resolution Sunday that forms a working group to weigh the possibility of cutting up to $17,000 in printing funds from The Wesleyan Argus newspaper budget and using it to create 20 paid positions at various student publications.
But student government leaders have emphasized that despite the resolution’s passage, no money has been cut from the paper’s budget yet — it’s merely a statement of intent to examine the issue.
The vote marks the latest development in a debate that has roiled the campus since student and Iraq War veteran Bryan Stascavage wrote an op-ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking a petition to defund the newspaper unless certain demands for diversity and inclusion were met.
“It’s a statement of intent to talk about these things, not an actual cut,” Stascavage said. He added that he didn’t consider the resolution retaliatory against his op-ed, but he thinks the Argus should seize on the controversy as a catalyst to consider alternative, independent methods of funding separate from student government.
Wesleyan Student Assembly Vice President Aidan Martinez confirmed in an email that no funds have been cut yet.
“The working group was created to explore the possibilities and all of the suggestions generated could be abandoned if data discovered goes against what the author intended to do (increase readership, minimize environmental impact, and diversify writers),” Martinez said.
Any eventual changes based on the working group’s suggestions would require administrator approval to go into effect and could not be imposed based on the working group alone.
The Argus’ website features a page asking for donations as editors brace for potential cuts. Editors did not respond to requests for comment as of Monday afternoon, but a Friday editorial by editors-in-chief Tess Morgan and Rebecca Brill called the resolution “reactionary” and urged student representatives to vote against it.
The resolution, they said, would actually affect number of paid positions the paper offers, including those in layout and distribution.
“Our attachment to print goes beyond the sentimental (though the experience of reading a hard copy of a newspaper is undeniably valuable); it is a matter of providing students of all backgrounds with opportunities to learn first-hand about the process of creating print media,” they wrote.
The resolution affirms the importance of environmental sustainability by reducing paper waste and exploring digital options — an issue that Stascavage said predates the op-ed controversy — but media outlets such as Reason.com have mocked the suggestion as a thinly veiled pretext for censorship: “On college campuses, cracking down on dissident viewpoints isn’t censorship; it’s just ‘reducing paper waste.’”
Courts have found that, at public universities, proposing a change to the funding system motivated by a dislike of content can be a form of illegal censorship. But as a private school, the student government’s proposal wouldn’t be illegal, even if it meets the definition of censorship otherwise.
If the cuts eventually go forward, the money up in the air could potentially boomerang back to the Argus, at least in part — publications would be funded in order of student interest, and the Argus would very likely be one of the top choices, student government representatives said.
The measure encourages student government representatives to study the issue carefully until fall 2016, examining how students consume their news and exploring a variety of options, said Alex Garcia, a student government senator who sponsored the resolution.
“It’s going to be a long process, and that’s how it should be,” Garcia said. “We don’t want to make any reactionary decisions.”
Brill and Morgan wrote in their editorial that transforming the newspaper to be more inclusive takes time and deserves “careful attention.” The resolution itself is reactionary, they wrote, and disregards the “broader implications” of the conversation.
“If we have learned anything from our conversations with the student body in the past month, it is precisely how charged, complicated and multidimensional issues of race and representation are on this campus and in this country,” they wrote.
Argus editors have started making “small but meaningful changes,” they wrote. The editorial staff has participated in a social justice education training, and the Argus is developing outreach programs and an Editor of Equity and Inclusion position.
“We believe that these changes can only be achieved through collaboration between The Argus and the student body, rather than government-imposed restrictions,” Brill and Morgan wrote.
Stascavage said the push to divert funds away from the printing budget is a culmination of problems that have festered at length between the newspaper and activist groups on campus.
“This was sort of bubbling beneath the surface, and so this is the way for the [student] government to sort of walk through these conflicts,” he said.
Ultimately, he said he wants the Argus to maintain as much autonomy as possible.
“I still have a fundamental issue with government telling a paper or any student group what they have to do,” he said.
Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at 202-974-6317 or by email.