Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

Letter from the editor: the need for a truly free press

Posted on April 09, 2018 in News
By USM Free Press

By Julie Pike, editor-in-chief

After hearing the recent news that a vote within the Student Senate to disband the organization as an independent 501(c)(3) status, I felt compelled to share my opinion, and I figured that there’s no better way to do this than through my letter to our readers.

With this change, the Student Senate, as well as all other Student Government Association (SGA) entities, including the Free Press, would fall under the umbrella of the university. In the past these entities have existed separately. The official proposal, number 46.23, only officially came about a few weeks ago, although the idea had been in discussion for several months.

The Student Senate allocates funding from the Student Activity Fee, which all students pay as part of their tuition. Under this proposal the Senate would still continue to be in control of those funds. However, the question remains what this means for the other entities that are now considered under university control.

What this decision appears to mean is that our newspaper may soon face a dramatic change. We call ourselves the Free Press for a reason, and we want to keep it that way. If the university were to suddenly be able to have control over what we publish, it will be a direct violation of our First Amendment right.

We are a university newspaper in the fact that we report the news that’s relevant to our direct community, including students, staff and faculty. As we have run as a separate entity from the university, we have had the right to publish what we see deem newsworthy. It’s safe to say that we’ve published a few stories that may not paint the university in a positive light. However, our main goal as journalists is to simply publish the truth and inform our readers.

While what we publish may irritate some administrators, but no one can deny that we have a right to publish the facts. If there is something happening within the university that our community has a right to know, it is our duty to provide a platform that people can go to as a way to stay informed.

We may just be students who are producing a small university newspaper, but we are held to the same standards as bigger publications. We deserve to have the same rights.

Not only could this decision impact what we can publish, but the access to our funding becomes unsure. While we are allotted a certain amount from the Student Activity Fee, we raise a lot of outside funding, especially from advertising.

This proposal is presented as a way to simplify the finances for the Student Senate and the SGA. Our funds would now transfer over to the university controlled MaineStreet. While this proposal does not explicitly express that the university is going to have any direct control over these entities, it makes the possibility of that more likely.

There was a case recently at a Kentucky university, where their student newspaper had abruptly half of their funding taken out of their reserves by the university to help their budget deficit.

USA Today reported that at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, students from their school newspaper had to have their questions for when they interviewed administrators screened by the public relations office, who would rewrite any questions they didn’t like.

Faculty advisors from West Virginia’s Fairmont State University have been fired from their positions as a result of backlash from the university. In one instance it was because students had reported about a toxic mold problem that was making people sick in a dormitory.

What I fear is if the university has access or control to our funding, that there could be retaliation if we publish something that reflects the university in a negative way, even if it is one that is true. For this proposal to gain the support of the Free Press, there needs to be clear guidelines and rules stating that we will still be operating as a separate entity aside from how our finances are kept. If these guidelines aren’t clearly stated and the proposal remains too vague, that leaves the door open for the university to step in and control what we publish.

In my First Amendment class, we had a recent discussion about prior restraint, which is suppression of material from being published on the basis that it is libelous or could cause harm. The Supreme Court has had numerous cases regarding prior restraint in which they have supported their ruling that it is unconstitutional, except for in extreme cases, such as national security issues.

Restraining our right to publish is an outcome that I hope this proposal will not bring to the Free Press. I hope that throughout these changes to our financial system, that we can truly remain a “free” press.

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