Separate fund created for Wesleyan University student newspaper, faced defunding threats by student government for piece criticizing BLM
First posted August 22, 2017 11:09pm EDT
Last updated June 16, 2022 5:06pm EDT
All Associated Themes:
- Hate Speech
- Protest Politics
- Violence / Threats
The Wesleyan Argus, a student newspaper at Wesleyan University, faced threats of being defunded by the student government after it published an opinion-editorial that criticized the Black Lives Matter movement. Later, a resolution passed to create a publications fund separate from the student budget.
Bryan Stascavage authored an op-ed in The Argus that criticized some activists in the Black Lives Matter movement. He had previously worked as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army and served two tours in Iraq, according to the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). In the wake of the controversy sparked by his article, he has written about being a conservative on a liberal campus. He wrote an article for The New York Times titled “My Liberal University Cemented My Vote for Trump.”
Kate Cullen served as president of the Wesleyan Student Assembly for the 2015-16 academic year. She signed a petition supporting the defunding of The Argus if the publication did not meet certain demands to increase inclusivity and diversity.
Rebecca Brill was co-editor of The Wesleyan Argus when Stascavage’s op-ed was published.
Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University. He issued a joint statement with Provost Joyce Jacobsen and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias in support of The Argus’ free speech rights.
In September 2015, sophomore Stascavage wrote an op-ed in The Argus criticizing the tactics used by some members of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many students were angered by Stascavage’s article and responded negatively in the online comments section of the piece, as well as on social media. Stascavage told the CJR that a Black student “harangued him in the café at the Wesleyan bookstore, crying hysterically, talking about being assaulted by police and accusing him of ‘oppressing’ her.”
The student editors of The Argus were “overwhelmingly white” at the time, reports CJR. This prompted heated criticism of the student-run newspaper for failing to acknowledge and serve minority members of the Wesleyan community. “There were people on campus who were no longer talking to me,” Brill, co-editor of The Argus, told the CJR. Much of the student opposition to The Argus was led by The Ankh, another student publication, the intended audience for which is primarily minority students. The Ankh met with Brill, who told the CJR that “they said The Argus was propagating a racist ideology.” She continued, “‘White supremacy’ got thrown around a lot. Definitely a lot of anger, a lot of tears, very emotional. I do think a lot of these students were genuinely hurt by the piece.”
The student leaders of The Argus eventually decided to apologize for publishing Stascavage’s column, adding a disclaimer to the op-ed that the views expressed within the piece “do not align with the viewpoints or priorities of The Wesleyan Argus as a student-led institution.” He was blindsided by the apology, the CJR reports.
Stascavage, who attended Wesleyan through a scholarship program offered to veterans, considered transferring to Liberty University, an evangelical institution in Lynchburg, Virginia, The Washington Post reports. However, Wesleyan’s administration reached out to him and expressed its support, discouraging him from transferring.
Many students signed a petition calling for a boycott of The Argus and the defunding of the paper by the student government, unless the paper met certain demands. These included “greater diversity on the paper’s staff, more minority recruitment, once-a-semester social justice and diversity training for the staff, and monthly staffing and spending reports,” according to the CJR. The Wesleyan student government provided “most of The Argus’ operating cash,” the CJR reports. Cullen, the student government president, signed the petition, signaling a willingness to defund the paper. Vice President Aidan Martinez told the student assembly, “Don’t think of this as a way to silence free speech, but as an equity and inclusion issue,” according to the CJR.
Cullen believed that the student government’s actions would expand access to Free Speech, not limit it. “A key point that the national media has continually reported incorrectly is that the goals of these campus activists were not to limit freedom of speech of one individual, but to demand broader access to that right,” she told the CJR. “If a white person has a greater opportunity to join the paper, they have greater freedom to express themselves and have their opinions be valued.”
Prior to publishing Stascavage’s column, editors of The Argus had worked to increase diversity among the editorial staff. They had reached out to minority student groups and actively recruited students of color to write for the paper. However, Brill acknowledged to the CJR that their recruitment efforts “didn’t really take.”
As the petition to defund The Argus gained signatures, the paper’s editors began seeking outside funding to prepare for the possible loss of operating cash. Notable alumni of The Argus, including New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse, penned a letter to the editor criticizing the student government’s encroachment on the paper’s autonomy. National media attention sparked increased criticism of the student government’s plans. It presented an alternate proposal in which $17,000 of The Argus’ print budget would be redirected to “stipends for students of color with financial need to encourage them to write for the paper and other campus publications,” according to the CJR. This policy change would force The Argus to “print only once a week and fire paid staff,” noted the CJR. Student government leaders claimed that the policy was aimed at increasing diversity on the editorial staff and reducing paper consumption due to environmental concerns. Editors of The Argus, however, viewed the change as an encroachment on their freedom of speech.
Student government leaders ultimately decided to delay any decision on funding for The Argus. However, headlines in The Washington Post and the Hartford Courant in October 2015 inaccurately indicated that the student newspaper had lost a portion of its funding.
Roth, the university president, joined by Wesleyan’s provost and vice president for equity and inclusion, released a statement titled “Black Lives Matter, But So Does Free Speech.” The statement supported The Argus’ right to publish the column and reminded students that “there is no right not to be offended.” The Ankh responded to the administration on its Facebook page, writing, “We do not have the time, nor luxury, to be caught up in this smokescreen of free speech. Let us be clear: this is not an issue of your free speech. This is an issue of our voices being silenced, our communities under attack. Free speech is not a one-dimensional highway—white, cisgender, heterosexual men are not the only ones with the right to free speech.”
In October 2015, Roth contributed an op-ed to the Hartford Courant in which he encouraged students to “be open to being offended for the sake of learning,” but also acknowledged that Stascavage’s piece may have contributed to “the ongoing marginalization of a sector of our student population.” His piece, titled “The Uncomfortable Truth About Free Speech,” purported to recognize both sides of the dispute.
While Stascavage and Brill both told the CJR that a “culture of fear” persisted at Wesleyan University, Roth called this suggestion “nonsense” and suggested that fearful students “get a spine.”
The dispute between student government leaders and The Argus was temporarily quelled by the paper’s efforts to increase diversity. Editors created a new column for minority voices and expanded coverage of minority events. However, in March 2016, the student government attempted to seize the roughly $12,000 raised for the paper’s endowment. Student government leaders claimed that student organizations were forbidden from having special accounts, according to the CJR. The Argus’ editors sharply criticized the student government, writing that the latest proposal was “just one in a series of attempts to undermine our independence as a newspaper and to remove financial support.” The student government ultimately abandoned this policy, and The Argus retained the endowment funds.
Controversial editorial causes student government to threatened student newspaper’s funding
An op-ed in Wesleyan University’s student newspaper, written by a conservative student, inspired intense backlash among the student body. The editorial, which criticized some members of the Black Lives Matter movement, prompted the student government to threaten repeatedly to reduce or withdraw the newspaper’s funding. The controversy attracted national media attention and widespread condemnation of the student government’s actions.
Student newspaper becomes more diverse in wake of controversy
The Argus took steps to increase diversity among the editorial staff after the op-ed about Black Lives Matter sparked major backlash. The paper increased recruitment efforts for minority journalists and dedicated a column to minority voices.
Administration supports Free Speech
Roth repeatedly supported The Argus’ rights to Free Speech. Although he acknowledged and sympathized with those who were hurt by the editorial, he said he believes education should be “risky” and supported the paper’s Free Speech rights.
However, in his 2016 statement “On The Argus and Freedom of Expression,” Roth warned that framing anti-discrimination efforts as the enemy of free speech “only diverts attention from far more dangerous threats.”
The university president has also expressed his approval of the student government’s resolution to protect the editorial autonomy of The Argus by removing their direct involvement in determining the paper’s funds.
Student assembly creates separate committee to fund The Argus
In April 2016, the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) passed a resolution that created a Media Publications Fund Committee separate from their Student Budget Committee (SBC). This meant the WSA would no longer directly fund The Argus or any other student publication.
The resolution aimed to mitigate a conflict of interest between the student government and the student press that “in good conscience, has to be critical of them at times.”