Letter from the editor: Protecting student media

By Julie Pike, Editor-in-Chief

An editor’s job doesn’t end at just getting out the paper, they also have to work to ensure that their staff has the ability to do their jobs independent from government oversight. With the Free Press, the latter has become more and more difficult.

I’ve found myself having to repeatedly defend my team of student journalists to keep our work as independent as possible from the Student Senate. The Student Senate has a high turnover rate, and as a new Senate comes in, so do the ideas of changing up how things have been done in the past.

Part of the Student Senate’s role at USM is to allocate the student activity fee that each student is charged along with their tuition, to different student groups and entities on campus. The Free Press receives a portion of the student activity fee to fund our operations and to able to do our job informing our community. We have an important role in the university to provide the unbiased truth to the people of USM. However, unless there are protections in place to ensure that the Free Press will always receive the funding we need, our ability to do our jobs will be directly affected.

The Free Press falls under the Student Communications Board (SCB), which also houses WMPG, and represents student media and USM. The SCB is given a set 30 percent of the student activity fee, which is split among the Free Press and WMPG.

This process and agreement is guaranteed through the Student Senate and SCB constitutions. The SCB also exists to protect students’ First Amendment rights and to ensure that there are platforms for students to practice their freedom of expression.

That protection that the Free Press and the SCB need to operate accordingly is no longer certain, and it remains in the hands of the current Student Senate to vote on.

The SCB was first created to protect the Free Press and WMPG from having funds taken away as repercussions of something we publish. Before, if the Student Senate were unhappy with something the Free Press printed, they could work to pull our funding affecting our ability to serve our community.

There needed to be a separation between student media and the Student Senate, and that’s where the SCB came into play. However, the existence of the SCB itself doesn’t completely protect student media unless the Student Senate has exact language in their constitution and by-laws that ensure our independence and ability to protect ourselves from unfair treatment that might come from a new group of Student Senators. If there are precedents set and adhered to by earlier Senates, the future ones will hopefully follow suit.

There are two new documents that were recently introduced by the Student Senate, one a resolution and one an amendment to their bylaws. Both include language regarding the relationship between the Senate and the SCB and how funds are used. However, neither of them grant us full protection of our funds.

There are some current Student Senators who are against setting procedures for their future Senators, yet they have expressed their respect for the work of student media at USM. “In recognition of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, the Student Government Association shall have no direct oversight of the student media,” is stated in their constitution. The need for an independent press is not going away, unlike the staff of the Free Press and the Student Senators who in time move on from their positions. This right, that is ingrained in our country’s Constitution will always need to be upheld, and so the Student Senate constitution should reflect that by providing the SCB protections for our funding.

The Board of Trustees (BOT) for the University of Maine System states in their policy manual that they are “Committed to protecting the rights all University community members share to free speech, which includes free expression and assembly, as enshrined in the U.S. and Maine State Constitutions. There shall be no restriction at any System institutions on these fundamental rights.” As the Student Senate follows the policies set forth by the BOT, they should not be implementing any restrictions on the work of the SCB.

All USM students who value a free and independent press should want the current and future staff of the Free Press to have a paper with guaranteed independence from the Student Senate. We may receive funding from them, but in reality it’s funding from the students we serve. We cannot provide students with the factual information they need to know about their university and community if we can not have the freedom to publish content that we choose without fear of repercussions.

The Student Senate will be meeting next on Friday, March 15 at 1 p.m. in Upton-Hastings in Gorham. They will be voting on the two new documents that have been introduced. To give student media the protection it deserves, neither should pass. I urge all readers to contact their Student Senators and encourage them to reverse the current initiatives and to incorporate the language of the SCB constitution into their own constitution.

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