Wesleyan student government revokes student newspaper's funds

CONNECTICUT — Several months after the student newspaper at Wesleyan University faced threats of being defunded for publishing an opinion piece critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, the student government is revoking the remainder of its funding for the spring semester.

The private liberal arts college garnered national headlines last fall when a student journalist wrote a contentious article in The Wesleyan Argus that brought a fiery debate on free speech and diversity in the media to the Middleton, Conn. campus.

In October, the student government formed a working group to weigh the possibility of cutting up to $17,000 in printing funds from the Argus’ budget. The results of the group’s deliberations — and the final fate of the Argus’ budget — have not been publicly released yet.

But last week, after receiving a troubling email from the Wesleyan Student Assembly Student Budget Committee that announced it was revoking funding for the newspaper, the Argus co-editors-in-chief Courtney Laermer and Jess Zalph spoke out about what they see as another round of politically driven budget cuts.

In an editorial titled, “We Need to Protect Publication Finances from WSA Politics,” Laermer and Zalph outlined constant threats of budget cuts, a lack of transparency and targeted attacks from student government officials. The editors also set up an online petition to protect the paper’s funding, which has gotten more than 150 signatures so far, in response to the March 14 email informing them that the budget committee planned to take back the entirety of their unused funds for the semester.

The Argus has a separate funding account filled with donations — most from those who supported the free speech rights of the newspaper after it faced defunding threats for the controversial opinion piece. The budget committee has suspended further funding for the Argus until the newspaper uses the rest of the money — $12,580.32 — it has racked up in donations.

“We stressed in our request for donations that this money was to protect our independence and to provide security after we were threatened with being defunded,” the editors wrote. “Most of the money was donated by alumni who feared that the newspaper’s funding could be pulled at a second’s notice. Ironically, it is the presence of this emergency money that is now being used as the pretext for the withdrawal of WSA-approved funding.”

In September, columnist Bryan Stascavage wrote an article questioning whether the Black Lives Matter movement, which was spurred by a rash of police shootings at unarmed African-American men, was accomplishing anything legitimate. The article, titled “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think,” asserted that the movement encouraged violence and was hypocritical. It denounced Black Lives Matter rallies that celebrated a slain officer with people chanting that they wanted more “pigs to fry like bacon.”

The article was met with severe backlash from Wesleyan students, which included nearly 500 copies of the newspaper’s 1,000-copy print run being intentionally trashed in protest. Some of these demands featured a monthly report on the Argus’ allocations and leadership structure, diversity training for all student publications once every semester and open space on the front page of the Argus reserved for marginalized groups — and if the newspaper received no submissions, that the space be left blank.

The angered students also started a petition — which was signed by 167 students and WSA officials, alumni, staff and one Middletown community member — calling for the newspaper to be defunded until the demands were met.

Student government officials then unanimously passed a resolution to form a working group that would decide whether to divert $17,000 from the Argus’ printing budget of $30,000 to fund work-study positions at various campus publications. The working group has been meeting this semester, but the Argus editors wrote that they have been excluded from the process.

“The Argus members of the group, after receiving assignments, have not been receiving emails or information, or have been invited to meetings if there have been any,” they wrote in the editorial. “For a process that is supposed to be collaborative, our exclusion is disconcerting and it’s hard to not conclude that the relevant members of the WSA have already made up their minds.”

The student government has also said that cutting the paper’s funding in half would force the twice-weekly newspaper to beef up its digital presence and reduce paper waste. But the Argus editors have said they are already taking steps to expand their online presence, but print advertising is vital to their budget, funding their paid positions.

The Argus has implemented several of the changes suggested by the community and student government, such as a new opinion column called “Voices” that features personal stories from students on campus who otherwise might not have a platform to be heard. But its editors claim these changes have not been enough for the student government, and the budget committee is retaliating by suspending the newspaper’s funding.

“We are committed to providing the Wesleyan community with a diverse range of opinions,” Zalph said. “[The “Voices” column] has received a positive response, and we hope it flourishes.”

Laermer said she was shocked when she got the email from the budget committee.

“I really wish that there could have been some form of dialogue among [the Argus and the budget committee],” she said.

She said though she recognizes that this decision could be due to a mismanagement of funds, she is certain that part of it is more political.

Zalph said she agreed, and believes the governing body could possibly be retaliating against the Argus based on its content.

“Especially in light of the broader conversation about our funding, this move does not seem completely divorced from politics,” she said. “This presents a clear reason why student press and government ought to be kept separate.”

She said the WSA should also be responsible for making their policies upfront and clear.

While the editors of the Argus alleged the resumption of unused spring funds is political, WSA Vice President Aidan Martinez said the decision was driven by policy.

Martinez said the budget committee retains the right outlined in WSA bylaws to reassume unused funds from any student group, and usually does this each semester. He said the Argus has an unfair advantage over student groups because it has a donor base.

“In this case, the Argus obviously has more money than they need, which is why we think other student groups are in greater need,” he said.

In an open letter to the Argus editors, the budget committee defended its actions. In it, the committee said it was not blocking the newspaper’s funding, and that the Argus had plans to only use half of its $23,500, while letting the rest sit idly.

“This is by no means a political conflict,” the letter read. “A student newspaper requesting funding from a student government structure is inherently ideologically flawed and deserves further community debate.”

Free speech advocates nationwide have spoken out in defense of the Argus and expressed concern about the possibility of the working group halving the paper’s budget. The College Media Association and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education were among those condemning the student government’s actions.

“Anytime the government seeks to control the media, freedom of the press is in danger,” CMA President Rachele Kanigel said in a statement. “Whether it’s through direct censorship, or through financial manipulation, interfering with the operations of a student newspaper is a form of censorship.”

Zalph said she hopes the student government will “do the right thing” and restore the Argus’ original funding.

“We have a duty as a newspaper and as members of the student body to not let any voices be silenced,” she said, “and to refuse to be intimidated when determining our content.”

SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.

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