NEW JERSEY — A 150-year-old student newspaper at Rutgers University says it plans to continue publishing despite school funding being cut until at least the 2022-23 academic year.
The Daily Targum faces a referendum every three years where at least 25 percent of Rutgers students must vote to approve funding the newspaper for the following cycle. In May, only 25 percent of total students voted on the referendum at all.
So even though 68 percent of those who cast votes were in favor of the newspaper, poor turnout killed their chances and they lost the funding.
A referendum vote on funding the school newspaper can certainly approach problematic territory.
The newspaper will lose around $540,000 of its nearly $800,000 budget for the 2019-2020 school year due to the failed referendum, according to NJ.com. The Targum’s current editor-in-chief, Priyanka Bansal, wrote in an email the publication is seeking “help from alumni, grants, etc.” until the referendum comes up again in three years.
“The current status [of the Targum] is to move forward without student funding and plan for our next referendum,” Bansal wrote. “We are moving forward with a different business plan for now.”
The newspaper launched a GoFundMe in May following the failed referendum vote with a goal of raising $100,000. As of September 10, just under $19,000 has been donated to the Targum.
But the referendum process itself has garnered attention from First Amendment and civil liberties groups. Student Press Law Center Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean says a vote to determine school funding may violate student journalists’ rights.
“The Supreme Court requires that student fees be disbursed to student groups in an even-handed way that does not discriminate based on a group’s position or stance,” she said. “Schools are not allowed to deny funding to a group because of a viewpoint it advocates, so a referendum vote on funding the school newspaper can certainly approach problematic territory.”
SPLC released a statement in June standing by the Targum’s First Amendment rights and supporting a letter of concern about the situation from The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to Rutgers President Robert Barchi.
The referendum was established at Rutgers before the Supreme Court rulings on viewpoint-neutral funding in 1995 and 2000. Adam Goldstein, program officer of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said at the time both the Targum and administrators agreed the referendum was a way for the paper to establish independence from the university.
“[The counsel’s] point was just this was supposed to guarantee their independence, and I understood that and I agree; it just doesn’t actually work with the law we have now,” Goldstein said.
But Goldstein does not believe the university has been trying to censor the newspaper; he says they’ve “been working in the best interest of the Targum from the beginning.”
On March 1, 2017, the Targum published an article pointing out striking similarities betwteen a conservative student group’s campus recruitment flyers to those of the American Vanguard, a self-proclaimed white supremacist group. (James Fields Jr. marched with the American Vanguard during the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 before striking and killing anti-protester Heather Heyer with his car.) The campus conservative group condemned these actions.
The story jump-started a two-plus year campaign by the Rutgers Conservative Student Union to #DefundTheTargum through numerous “fake news” attacks and claims of bias toward conservative students, even though posts from the group never generated much engagement.
The group urged Rutgers students to either vote against funding the Targum or to not just not show up at all and lower the overall turnout, according to The Daily Beast.
In the meantime, Bansal wrote, the Targum has cut its print publication from five to four days a week and is limiting circulation.
“For our newsroom, this process has been a big change,” she wrote.
“We are focusing on a lot of digital initiatives now,” she added. “From imagining new podcasts and videos, to creating a better newsletter and even an app that was recently released, we are taking the focus away from the 5th day of print that we originally had and putting that focus into moving digital.”
SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino
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