Every generation of secrecy-minded bureaucrats needs a breeding ground, a dark, dank place where they can perfect the ability to hide their machinations behind closed doors and retaliate against those who believe sunlight should trump darkness.
One such place, it seems, is the student government association at Montclair State University. Last week, it froze the funding it provides to The Montclarion because the student newspaper had the temerity to hire a lawyer to help it force the association to stop regularly holding closed meetings, a possible violation of New Jersey’s open-meetings law.
Karl de Vries, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper, said that the student government association also demanded that, according to the Associated Press, the paper “turn over correspondence between the newspaper and a lawyer The Montclarion had previously retained to challenge the student government’s practice of closing meetings to the public.”
Wednesday, amid a furor of criticism including statements from the nation’s principal professional associations of journalists, the student government association relented and temporarily restored the paper’s funding for 30 days.
The association should never have denied the paper its funding in the first place.
The New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center criticized the budget freeze, said the AP. Said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center:
You’re not only hurting the newspaper staff, which is having their free speech cut off, but the campus, which is being denied a valuable source of information.
The student government association’s president, Ron Chicken (yes, Chicken), and his officers said the freeze wasn’t about censorship but rather about the paper overstepping its authority by hiring an outside lawyer instead of consulting the association’s lawyer.
Hogwash. That’s akin to the Associated Press consulting the lawyer paid by a government agency that closes its meetings in violation of law instead of hiring its own lawyer. That argument is simply deceitful messaging to obscure retaliation.
For students who work on college newspapers nationwide (and the faculty who advise them), this is nothing new or startling. Student government associations, many of which are charged with dispensing student activities fees, often mirror the attitude of college administrators â€” do it in secret, allow no discussion, punish those who challenge their authority. The punishment usually takes one or both of two forms: cut funding or access to sources of information.
President Chicken and his association had already cut off access to information by regularly meeting behind closed doors, so it padlocked the newspaper’s budget.
And this from the AP: “After Wednesday’s vote, Karen Pennington, the university’s vice president of student development and campus life, said she was confident the administration will be able to successfully mediate the dispute.” I wonder what side the university’s administrators will take publicly … vs. privately.
Administrators do not like public inspection of university matters that might reflect poorly on their competencies or the university itself. Student governments, sadly, often mirror that tendency. That’s all the more reason why student newspapers must be provided the financial support and the public’s backing to hold student governments and university administrators accountable for their actions.
And the last word goes to the paper’s student editors:
Say what you will about The Montclarion as a newspaper and an organization in general. Whether you like or even approve of the content in our publication, chances are most of you agree that a newspaper is a necessity on a college campus. It is our job to keep you informed of the campus at large, whether it’s a bigger issue like the recently approved de-registration policy or a minor one like recent blackouts. From there, we leave you to decide what’s important, what’s irrelevant, and what needs to be changed. It is integral for an institution of learning to provide all means of awareness; in fact, it’s integral for any community to be unified by the means of public forum.
This is important for MSU not just as a university but as a community at large. It is the newspaper’s job to serve as the watchdog of the policy-makers who decide your fate as a student and as a citizen, to alert you to any corruption that abuses your trust as fee-paying students, to give you the means to publicly express outrage or adulation for the policies that currently stand.