Brockport student editor stands fast against accusers
March 30, 2011
A column written by Bill Matthias, editor of the SUNY Brockport student newspaper The Stylus, prompted charges of libel from the college’s student government.
Democrat and Chronicle
The Stylus, the student newspaper at SUNY Brockport, takes its journalism seriously, delving into such issues as the conditions of college dorms and the practices of local police.
But the weekly has been feuding with the State University College at Brockport's student government in a flap that raises First Amendment issues about what kind of control — if any — a student government should have over a college newspaper.
The two have clashed over a Stylus column highly critical of the Brockport student government treasurer and a subsequent demand by student government that the paper's editor resign; a denied Freedom of Information request for a report pertaining to student government spending; and student government freezing "nonessential" Stylus spending earlier this month.
More than half of the Stylus' $92,775 budget this school year comes from student government in the form of student fees. Another $40,000 is expected from advertising.
Free-press advocates say that just because funds for a college newspaper are funneled through student government doesn't mean the newspaper is under that organization's thumb.
"The student government's job is to allocate funds — not to control the groups it funds," said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, added that student newspapers are supposed to act as the watchdog of student government. The demand that editor-in-chief Bill Matthias resign is "a blatant violation of free speech and free press principles," said Gutterman.
Matthias wrote a column in the Feb. 2 edition of the newspaper criticizing Brockport student government treasurer Kyle Kirchgraber for taking bundles of The Stylus from its distribution bin in the Seymour College Union.
Individual copies of the newspaper are free, but multiple copies are 25 cents each — a rule stated in the newspaper to forewarn against taking more than one copy.
Matthias noted in his column that the bundles — taken without permission from the newspaper — were used for a presentation to the student government's appropriations committee and that they were returned after he asked Kirchgraber to do so.
But Matthias went on to say there were important property and First Amendment principles at stake.
Eric May, president of the student government, noted that the newspapers taken were almost two months old and that he hoped to put this controversy to rest. "We are moving forward," he said.
The column prompted the student government to fire back with a letter from its lawyer, who accused Matthias of libel and demanded both a retraction and Matthias' resignation.
Matthias, 26, of Gates, said he has no intention of doing either.
"I am a journalist and have a backbone and it's my intention not to resign. Furthermore, I'm not going to print a retraction," said Matthias.
Rules of engagement
The Stylus has a charter setting forth the newspaper's ground rules, including removal of the editor-in-chief by a two-thirds vote of the editorial board. But the student government's lawyer contends that the newspaper is an integral part of student government. "It's not a separate and distinct entity," said William P. Smith Jr., who is with the local firm of Woods Oviatt Gilman. He maintains that all Stylus assets are owned by student government, so the notion that student government illegally took something from the newspaper wouldn't apply in this case.
Kirchgraber, a 21-year-old senior at the college, declined to be interviewed for this article.
May confirmed that Kirchgraber took the newspapers for the appropriations committee meeting in late January but said that it was "an organization" decision, declining to elaborate.
Tensions persist. Matthias, who last year served as an intern at the Democrat and Chronicle, filed a Freedom of Information request in early February for a report about student government's expenditures for the current fiscal year.
Smith denied the request — saying that The Stylus is part of student government and not required "to transfer information within itself."
In early March, the student government froze The Stylus' budget, saying that required purchasing procedures were not followed when $98.22 was spent on pizzas for a recruiting meeting and a production night. The freeze, which was lifted Friday, prevented the newspaper from making "nonessential" purchases, said May.
Brockport college officials have steered clear of this controversy. Spokesman Dave Mihalyov said the administration is not taking sides.
Marsha Ducey, The Stylus' faculty adviser who also is an assistant professor of journalism at Brockport, would like to see more distance between the student government and the newspaper — perhaps by establishing a committee broader in representation than student government to decide how much The Stylus should get from student fees.
"I don't think the students who get criticized by the newspaper should be deciding this," she said.