Quinnipiac University Newspaper Editors Go Independent
August 27, 2008
Last academic year's struggle between the editorial staff of the university-controlled Quinnipiac Chronicle and the Quinnipiac University (QU) administration has birthed a new independent paper, The Quad News. Once Chronicle editor-in-chief Jason Braff and his editorial staff announced their plans to form an independent, online publication, all twenty QU students who had applied for editorial posts at the Chronicle withdrew their applications.
The conflict began in September 2007 when Braff, in response to a racially charged incident on campus, sought permission to publish a web exclusive on the incident since the Chronicle had not yet started printing for the fall semester. QU President John Lahey refused, saying that doing so would violate a new university policy mandating that the paper's content may only be posted on the web simultaneously with the publishing of the print version. Moreover, the new policy stated that the website could only be updated on the days that the new print edition was released. Lahey later commented preposterously that such rules were in place "so at least dinosaurs like me who read the hard copy version get an opportunity to read it before the external world hears about it."
Sadly, this was hardly the first restriction placed upon the paper by the QU administration that year. QU then imposed a new rule requiring all media, including the Chronicle, to direct requests for interviews with any university figure through QU's public affairs office, effectively taking away from reporters the ability to directly contact their sources. Further, Lahey and the administration actively discouraged members of the student press from covering public events at which he or other QU administrators spoke. At the same event where he claimed that he ought to be able to read the news before others get to hear about it online, Lahey asked the audience, "Why should I come to a meeting like this to discuss with the students sensitive topics that are appropriate to discuss, but run the risk of that being reported, maybe accurately, or not accurately?"
Although much of the QU community relied on the Chronicle's reporting for information on a number of these "sensitive topics," Lahey amazingly characterized the student press as so much of a hindrance that it should be excluded from his events. Just as amazingly, Lahey was openly disdainful of other media picking up news from the Chronicle, expressing distaste for an event of his becoming "a press conference to the world." Lahey could have noted that additional press generated by student newspapers is often a mark of the high quality of student journalism, but he chose instead to take an antagonistic view.
When Braff spoke out against QU's policies, he was met with threats by the administration. Following an interview in which he sharply criticized QU's web update policy (which QU would later rescind), Braff received a letter from Manuel Carreiro, QU's dean of students, raising the possibility that he could lose his position and the $8,000 stipend that came with it. Lynn Bushnell, QU's vice president for public affairs (the one whom reporters were now expected to contact first in order to be allowed to speak with any figure in the QU community), sent a chilling message to the community when he commented that "student leaders, especially those in paid positions, are expected to generally be supportive of university policies." Message: you are our employees first and our students second.
The final straw came in May 2008, when—after ordering Braff to suspend the normal editorial application process—QU proposed taking away entirely (at least for a time) the Chronicle's ability to choose its own leadership. Under the proposed system, Carreiro would choose the editor-in-chief from a pool of applicants nominated by QU's various deans. Carreiro also would have the final say over all editorial positions, choosing from a pool nominated by the editor-in-chief and the managing editors of the paper. At this point, Braff withdrew his application for reappointment, a raft of other editors followed suit, and—at Braff's urging—all twenty prospective editorial staff members withdrew their applications. Before long, Braff and his team of Chronicle expats were able to secure funding to incorporate their new paper and cover their startup costs, with help coming from pro bono legal services and donations from organizations such as the Connecticut Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
By the time it happened, the break between QU and the Chronicle's editors was highly anticipated, if not inevitable. It's not without a little irony that the proposed changes by the administration precipitating the schism were made with the aim of ultimately making the Chronicle an independent publication, a recommendation made by a university-appointed task force that included Carreiro and Bushnell. The reason for their change of heart: fears that Lahey and the administration may be held liable for the content of the publication. It remains to be seen what Quinnipiac's actions will mean for the future of the Chronicle; only recently has an editor-in-chief been appointed, and most senior positions are still listed as "TBD."
FIRE has long been following this story, and we laud Jason Braff's tireless efforts to support a free press at Quinnipiac. QU, for its part, is free to have its own university-sponsored and university-controlled "student" newspaper. But the founding of the Quad News serves as a reminder that when a school turns the screws too tightly, students who value liberty will just go somewhere else.