Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018

Referendum could help give Student Senate total financial control of WMPG and The Free Press

Posted on April 08, 2002 in News
By Steve Peoples

If there was ever a good reason to vote in a Student Senate election, this is it. The future of free speech at USM may rest in your hands.

Sounds a little melodramatic, I know. But that’s exactly what’s going on.

The Student Senate decided the Student Communication Board, which governs The Free Press and WMPG, isn’t doing a good job and should be dissolved.

This would give the Senate total financial control of the student media entities. Of course the senators say they wouldn’t abuse this power to influence content. That’s not the point. The point is they could.

So it comes down to a very simple question: Do you want student government to control student media? Do you want a group of students who are often criticized in The Free Press to have control over how much The Free Press can spend on printing costs? Do you want a group of students – some of whom are elected by three write-in votes – to decide what kind of programming WMPG can broadcast?

It just doesn’t make sense.

Or at least that’s what the forefathers of our country thought. The Constitution of the United States outlines a press free from government control for a reason.

Some of the senators understand this. A lot of them don’t. The Free Press and WMPG get 30 percent of the Student Activity Fee. The Senate argues that regardless of the free speech implications, campus media entities have to be accountable to students.

I agree.

That’s why the SCB was created in the first place. The SCB was a group of students, media professionals, WMPG and Free Press representatives, a faculty representative, an administration member and a Student Senate representative. The idea was to have a group of people who understand the workings of media to make financial decisions for student media.

Before the creation of the SCB there are examples of the Senate abusing its power to influence content. Some Senates have tried withholding the adviser’s contract and questioned stipends for editors. Others have refused to authorize purchase orders for operational expenses.

But recently, most agreed the SCB wasn’t doing a great job. It didn’t meet frequently enough and it wasn’t organized. Often times, the SCB was simply a rubber stamp that approved the media entities’ budgets each year.

After the Senate voted to dissolve the SCB in late March, everyone involved came together to try to fix the situation. We thought it made a lot more sense to fix what was wrong instead of eliminating the SCB altogether.

Members of The Free Press, WMPG and the SCB sat down with senators. We met three times in a week and a half and basically rewrote the SCB constitution to make it stronger. We decided it was best to have more student representation. We instituted mandatory training sessions for the board leadership. We clarified job descriptions. We scheduled more frequent meetings. We addressed the Senate’s concerns.

At its next meeting, we presented those changes and the Senate narrowly voted 7 to 5 to reverse its decision to dissolve the SCB. But it didn’t decide to remove the question from this week’s ballot.

The elimination of the SCB requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate AND the majority of students in a student referendum.

If students vote against the SCB in this week’s elections, the Senate has until May to vote again to dissolve the SCB. And I have no doubt it would.

At the last Senate meeting I learned just how out of control some of the senators are.

In a flagrant display of political arrogance, while discussing whether or not to remove the SCB question from the ballot, three senators left the meeting to prevent a vote from taking place. There has to be a certain number of senators present to be able to vote and they knew by leaving, the Senate would be helpless to reverse its previous decision.

What we’re dealing with is a small Senate leadership that knows how to play political games and openly hates The Free Press. One of its leaders, Commuter Sen. Benjamin Hoffman, admitted in last Friday’s Senate meeting that, “from the very beginning of this year I’ve wanted to kill the SCB.”

If students vote down the SCB, I have no doubt Hoffman will seize the first opportunity that comes along to force another vote when he thinks his side can win. He is persuasive and a lot of the younger senators are easily influenced.

I saw this with my own eyes during a roll-call vote in which several senators decided to pass, preferring to wait to see how other people voted before making their own decisions. One senator even changed her vote during a recount after learning what everyone else had voted. I’d like to think senators represent the best interests of students, not what seems to be the popular thing to do. Obviously, that’s not the case.

The recent changes made to the SCB effectively address the previous concerns. We’ve created a group of informed students who will hold student media accountable while protecting free speech. Short of giving the Senate total control, I don’t know what else we could have done.

I don’t like having to use the front page of The Free Press for an editorial. It’s something I discussed several times with my staff before making the final decision. But there’s nothing more critical to the future of student media than preserving the SCB and students need to understand.

The only way to protect free speech on campus is to preserve the SCB. Vote “No” on Question 3 on this week’s ballot. Don’t allow a few power-hungry senators to control what you read in the paper or what you hear on the radio. Keep student media free.

Executive Editor Steve Peoples can be contacted at: stephen.peoples@maine.edu