How not to handle a college newspaper dispute
A fiscal fight at Montclair State University in New Jersey between student journalists and the student government has lessons for both sides.
The dispute came about because The Montclarion newspaper staff hired its own attorney to advise it on possible challenges to closed-door meetings of the Student Government Association. The association funds a portion of the newspaper’s annual expenses and claims control over its budget, including spending on legal advice.
The SGA’s president said hiring an outside lawyer by the newspaper staff was unauthorized. He then invoked what he said was the association’s standing authority to freeze “illegal” spending, which resulted in cancellation of the semester’s first edition. He also demanded that the newspaper turn over correspondence between The Montclarion and the attorney.
Amid criticism from national student-press advocates, the SGA legislature voted to restore funding for the newspaper’s printing and office supplies for 30 days to allow time for negotiations with the newspaper staff. Those talks are ongoing.
Those who would support and those who would limit student expression, at Montclair and elsewhere, should go to school on this collision of interests and motives:
The best use of that cooling-off period would be to work out an agreement that makes The Montclarion an independent student publication. According to one report, the newspaper already earns two-thirds of its annual operating funds through advertising. Going independent would not be easy – but it would avoid having a non-editor freeze the checkbook, or provide an “allowance” to purchase printing services and office supplies, which is where things now stand.
Those who control student fees still would be free to use those funds to pay for a subscription to the newspaper for every student, avoiding cumbersome — and it would appear divisive — budget entanglements. And control of news decisions would be in the hands of news editors, not under the thumb of potential newsmakers.
Montclarion editor Karl de Vries had it right when he was quoted by the Associated Press as saying the most important result of the 30-day settlement was that “Montclair State University will have a newspaper tomorrow.” Both sides should use what’s left of their negotiation period to set up a system that will function properly for a lot longer.