On Freedom of Press at College Campuses

Photo courtesy of wesleyan.edu | The Wesleyan Argus attracted a boycott followng publication of an op-ed on “Black Lives Matter.”

Photo courtesy of wesleyan.edu | The Wesleyan Argus attracted a boycott following publication of an op-ed on “Black Lives Matter.”

Michelle S. Lee ’16

On Oct. 18, Wesleyan University’s student government voted to tentatively reduce funding for Wesleyan’s newspaper, The Wesleyan Argus, with a vote of 27-0, with four abstaining. Slashed funds, which account for the decrease from $30,000 to $13,000 a year, would be reallocated to four of the school’s publications, of which The Argus is one.

This decision followed a Sept. 14 editorial by student and military veteran  Brian Stascavage, who questioned the progressive achievements of “Black Lives Matter” and explored its potential role in violence against police. Student responses to this were immediate – a petition signed by approximately 170 students, faculty and community members calling for a boycott of The Argus was circulated, while other students were spotted burning copies of the paper itself. Both the author of the op-ed and select editors at The Argus indicated they received verbal harassment and strained relations with some of their peers.

Administration responded on the side of The Argus. Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University, published an op-ed on The Huffington Post in expressing dismay at the outset of the events.

The student government vote was, intriguingly enough, not actually about the article itself. As Rebecca Brill, co-editor-in-chief of The Argus, indicated in an interview with Jezebel, the issue “divorced” itself from the issue of the article and the change in student government funding was a matter of conserving resources and expanding diversity.  This veiled avoidance of the actual source of discontent and failure of the school’s community to explicitly approach this issue without resorting to limiting such a central student publication has been a source of curiosity for many this past week, myself included.

Smith, like Wesleyan, is on the larger end of liberal arts colleges, catering to around 3000 students in semi-rural areas in New England. The Sophian, like The Argus, is the main source of student-operated news reporting. Neither Smith College, nor The Sophian, is unfamiliar with the spotlight shed on them with regards to freedom of speech on liberal college campuses.

Freedom of speech and, by extension, freedom of press, is fundamental in progressive dialogue. This is manifested in the open nature of student submissions, the choice to accept a transcript regardless of stylistic choices of the transcriber or the choice to publish an editorial that could instigate novel dialogue regarding an issue that reaches out to most members of our generation.

College newspapers publish pieces intended to not only inform, but also to provoke. Without differences of opinion, communities absorb  a social and political inertia that stagnates the potential for new ideas. When approached with the unfamiliar, verbal harassment of the author and acts as archaic as burning copies of the very platform that deliver these modems of discussion speak to the campus’ obstinacy to change. In doing so, one is obstructing the very processes society has fought to keep.

This is the line that distinguishes typical left-leaning liberal colleges from those that address such issues with a still-exclusionary definition of inclusivity. How can this be a topic of diversity if person with a minority opinion, no matter how many people on campus disagree, cannot safely walk around campus without being treated differently on account of their perspective? This extends not only to press, but also other forms of activism – the Smith Bipartisan Coalition, formed just this year, was created as a way to bridge the Smith Democrats and Republicans, and to bring visibility to the Smith Republicans, who have experienced adverse reactions from classmates when identifying oneself as politically conservative.

Dismissing an article and protesting the publication associated with it without engagement lacks forethought. A publication, particularly those as accessible as ones on a college campus, are meant to promulgate discussion. Discontent, even anger, is understandable. But channeling that anger by collectively banning readership of one’s college newspaper circumvents the issue, alienates a medium that is not only influential but also flexible and misinterprets the purpose of a boycott.

The Argus is not a top-down civil law or practice to be challenged via petitioning – in fact, oftentimes a paper has served as the impetus for challenging larger concepts and ideas. It  is most certainly not a bottom-up organization whose operational budget deserves to be deliberately strained on presumed (and conveniently-timed) calls for diversity and inclusivity for publications on campus – silencing on the premise of voicing the marginalized is still silencing.

I don’t disagree that there are aspects of Stascavage’s editorial that leave room for much-needed dialogue on a movement that has affected college students’ perceptions of race and justice systems.  And what is not frequently reported in news outlets is that the student body reacted in other manners, including counter-editorials – from both sides of the issue. But why was one of the strongest instinctive reactions to this series of events to push student government to shut down The Argus with calls for diversity instead of contributing to change by engaging in the paper itself?

One can argue a divide between the editors of the paper and the larger student body, pointing to this structural change that came from petitioning the student government. It is intimidating to approach a side that has the backing of the school administration, to be sure. But choosing this option stems from the assumption that the editors of this paper aren’t peers, classmates or floor-mates who may be engaged in the same issues that the activists are.

The Argus, in attempting to spark discussion on one cultural subject, has shed light on another. But such insight should be done in conjunction with the paper, not at the cost of it.

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