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Public university guts budget for 96-year-old student newspaper, citing its ‘quality’

Official reason is unopened bundles of newspaper

The University of Mary Washington community will lose the print edition of its student newspaper, The Blue & Gray Press, unless leaders can be convinced to restore funding – perhaps with a litigation threat.

The Free Lance-Star reports that the student finance committee at the Virginia public liberal arts university rejected the newspaper’s request to fund the weekly publication next year.

It didn’t propose to negotiate down the $13,665.12 print request, but nixed it altogether and gave the newspaper $100 for “office supplies” instead. (The online version isn’t affected.)

The committee’s administration member, Assistant Dean for Student Involvement Melissa Jones, cited complaints about newspaper bundles being left unopened, but the editor of The Blue & Gray Press, Lauren Closs, says the student government never brought such complaints to the paper.

But other comments by the student government and Jones herself suggest this is First Amendment retaliation.

She said the student government was open to reconsidering print funding “after the task force to improve the quality of the publication has issued its recommendations,” in an email obtained by The Free Lance-Star.

In a cabinet meeting of the student government, President Matthew Good also mentioned a “task force” that “might” make changes to “repair” the newspaper.

The university’s Journalism Advisory Committee and Faculty Council want an emergency meeting with top brass to discuss restoring funding. They said the decision appears to have come down “unilaterally and with no rationale” and removes the primary method by which “undergrads and prospective students” read the paper, according to The Free Lance-Star.

The Student Press Law Center sees potential legal action from the suspicious budget chop, citing First Amendment precedent against public universities that try to “control, manipulate or punish past or future content” by withholding funds:

SPLC Senior Legal Consultant Mike Hiestand said the editor of the Blue & Gray Press shared correspondence with him showing that “part of the reason for cutting off the funding is content-related.” He hopes the school will quickly reverse the decision, but said the SPLC will probably find an attorney to represent the newspaper free of charge if UMW does not back down.

“There have been a number of criticisms with the newspaper’s quality, people upset with the stories they’ve written,” Heistand said. “The whole reason for the First Amendment is we don’t want government officials telling us what we can and cannot publish.”

Funding cuts are an occasional method by which student governments and administrators retaliate against campus publications that receive funding, typically through mandatory student activity fees.

The University of California-San Diego temporarily defunded all student media in an apparent attempt to circumvent a legal challenge from the obvious target of the move, the crass and politically incorrect Koala. The newspaper sued anyway.

The University of Kansas Student Senate halved the budget for its official student paper following an op-ed that criticized the body, but restored it to settle litigation.

In perhaps the longest-running example of interference in editorial decisions by way of the power of the purse, Wesleyan University’s student government sought to gut the Argus budget in 2015 because it ran an op-ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

After months of unfavorable media coverage, the student government backed off, only to cut funding again when the newspaper raised private donations in response to the original funding threat.

Read The Free Lance-Star article.

MORE: Court says public colleges can’t yank funding in response to student speech

IMAGE: Vova Shevchuk/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.