Friday, February 12, 2010

State Censorship

Update: VT administration rejects Commission on Student Affairs' stance

Any effort to end Tech's contract with the Collegiate Times or its parent company, or to ban student organizations from advertising in the newspaper, "is not in the offing," [university spokesman Larry Hincker] said. "That is not the position of this administration."


Virginia Tech is threatening to pull funding from the campus paper (the Collegiate Times, or "CT").

The dispute centers upon a CT policy that allows online readers to post anonymous comments at The [Commission on Student Affairs] and others who support its proposal have objected to reader postings they characterized as racist or otherwise offensive.


Despite its independence, the newspaper receives free office space and $70,000 annually from the university, Vice President for Student Affairs Ed Spencer said.

The commission would further seek to ban student organizations from using university funds to buy ads in the CT, the letter stated.

Such a move could cripple or shut down the newspaper, which derives the majority of its revenues from ad sales. The newspaper's leadership pushed back publicly Thursday.

Essentially, the university wants to ban all anonymous comments on the paper's website because of some "racist or otherwise offensive" postings (ignoring, of course, the question of just who decides what is racist or offensive). The company that owns the CT is standing its ground, and doing so rather aggressively at this point.

The commission has requested another meeting with CT representatives.

But in a response to [commission chairwoman Michelle McLeese], [Kelly Wolff, general manager of the Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech, which owns the CT] wrote: "We have advised the Collegiate Times staff to discontinue discussions with CSA members, individually and collectively, on the topic of online comments. ... This is no longer a dialogue; it is coercion.

"We will wait to hear what the commission says. ... But if they are going to pursue this course of action, then we will take legal action," Wolff said in an interview Thursday.

In a purely private enterprise, this would not be a problem - a sponsor can provide or withdraw funding, facilities, or services at will and for any reason (within the limits of existing contracts). Virginia Tech, however, is an agency of the state (which is why they can't ban firearms on campus for anyone other than employees and students, or for specific events).

Note the sentence that I put in bold in the first quote. This actually goes farther than the university just pulling funding and support, they're also seeking to restrict where student organizations (the Fencing Club, the LGBTA, etc.), would be allowed to advertise.

Should an agency of the state be allowed to dictate terms about content to a newspaper? Should they be allowed to restrict where student organizations advertise? Or does this become a First Amendment violation? My first instinct is that this goes to far, and is an unallowable government coercion of media, but I'm not 100% settled yet - I really haven't had time to give it good, thorough, consideration. Opinions?

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