Victory for Freedom of the Press at University of West Georgia: FIRE Turns Content-Based Newspaper Censorship into Funding Increase
July 14, 2009
ATLANTA, July 14, 2009—The University of West Georgia's (UWG's) finance committee has restored and increased funding to UWG's student newspaper after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) challenged its unconstitutional funding cut and the student government's attempt to freeze the assets of The West Georgian. The newspaper had criticized corruption in the student government and printed a satire of fraternity life. After FIRE intervened on the paper's behalf, The West Georgian not only saw its funding restored but also received $3,600 of new funding.
"The University of West Georgia should be commended for quickly correcting its error," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Too many universities these days turn a blind eye to the rights of the student press, particularly when investigative reporting and satire are involved. We are pleased that once the university recognized these abuses, it decided to make things right."
The West Georgian, like many campus clubs, has traditionally been funded in part by student activity fee funds allocated by the Student Activity Fee Budget Allocation Committee (SAFBA), which includes both students and university staff. Over the past year, the paper has frequently reported on accusations of Student Government Association (SGA) corruption. On March 25, 2009, for instance, Editor-in-Chief Ellis Smith reported that the SGA's year "was marred by accusations of corruption, organizational incest and racializing the student body."
According to an April 9, 2009, e-mail sent by Campus Center Director Linda Picklesimer, SAFBA cut $4,500 from the paper's 2009–2010 budget because committee members "felt that [T]he West Georgian has not been responsive this past year to the needs of the students." In addition, SAFBA granted none of the paper's requests for additional funds.
Then, on April 22, the paper printed a satire of fraternity life titled "Join a Frat with Buck Futter, Jr.: Join a Frat, Key a Car." That day, new SGA President James Alan Webster authored a bill for "Suspension of ‘The West Georgian,'" designed to freeze its funding "due to overwhelming public opinion of the adverse [e]ffects of published material on the subjects of diversity, unity, and general welfare of the student body." According to an April 29 story in The West Georgian, this bill passed on April 23.
FIRE wrote UWG President Beheruz N. Sethna on May 11, pointing out that funding cuts or any punishment of the newspaper on the basis of content are unconstitutional infringements on freedom of the press, a liberty protected by the First Amendment, by which UWG is bound. "The funds of The West Georgian cannot be withdrawn when SAFBA or the SGA finds its speech disagreeable," FIRE wrote.
On May 20, UWG responded to FIRE, promising to investigate SAFBA's actions. On June 1, UWG Vice President for Student Affairs Melanie McClellan notified the paper via e-mail that she was asking SAFBA to rehear the paper's budget request without reference to the paper's content. "[I]t does appear that for some members of the committee, their decision was ‘content-motivated,'" she wrote. "In the hearing we convene this summer, we will instruct them to not consider their personal opinions about content in making their recommendations."
On June 29, Smith was informed by e-mail that SAFBA had decided that the paper's budget would not be cut by $4,500 and that it would receive $3,600 for additional requests that now were approved. ($500 was subtracted from the budget for legitimate reasons unrelated to censorship.)
"When The West Georgian's request was finally assessed on a constitutional basis, the paper received $7,600 more than when it was judged unlawfully," said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program. "It is vital that student governments at public universities across the country understand that they may not withdraw funding from a student group simply because they do not like that group's opinions. FIRE will continue to monitor the situation at UWG to ensure that freedom of the press remains strong on campus."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty can be viewed at thefire.org.