The Services and Activities Committee (S&A) listened to a proposal to defund student media at a meeting on Nov. 20, 2019. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) became aware of this and sent S&A a letter in hopes that the committee would not further entertain any proposals to defund student media in response to content.
FIRE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending basic freedoms–including freedom of speech and of the press–or students and faculty on America’s college campuses. Universities using the power of the funds to censor student media isn’t uncommon, according to FIRE.
As advocates for student rights, including student press rights, FIRE sent the letter to encourage the S&A Committee to respect its obligations under the First Amendment. Specifically, FIRE aimed to remind the S&A Committee that funding decisions based on content violate the First Amendment and Washington’s New Voices Act.
In the letter FIRE sent, it stated that FIRE and the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) were concerned about the state of freedom of expression, including freedom of the press at CWU. The concern stemmed from the recent discussion by the S&A Committee about withholding base funding for student media. The letter went over the events leading up to the proposal of defunding student media. The letter also went over the issue of censorship regarding administration requesting interview questions ahead of interviews.
FIRE stated in the letter that the S&A Committee could not investigate or defund CWU student media because to do so would be to act in a viewpoint-discriminatory and retaliatory manner in contravention of constitutional and state law.
At the end of the letter, FIRE requested that the S&A Committee publicly clarify that they would not retaliate against CWU student media or act in a viewpoint-discriminatory fashion. FIRE also requested that the S&A Committee publicly clarify that no student organization or program—including student media—would risk defunding for engaging in protected expression.
The S&A Committee talked about the letter FIRE sent them at their meeting on Jan. 8. The S&A Committee responded to the letter FIRE sent, stating:
“Thank you for your communication regarding recent discussions involving CWU student media. The S&A Fee Committee is in agreement regarding any concerns of viewpoint-discriminatory and retaliatory actions taken against any protected speech or expression. The S&A Fee Committee does stand firmly behind the commitment to uphold all protected speech and expression. As the committee discussed in response to a public comment on the subject, the particular content of funded programs or services is outside the scope of authority of the committee. The S&A Fee Committee takes their roles as stewards of the student money very seriously and will continue to remain vigilant in their roles as a recommending budgetary body regarding student services and activities fee allocations.”
FIRE wants the public to understand that student newspapers and other student media are meant to be controlled by the students. First Amendment legal theory and Washington’s New Voices law both recognize that the editorial control of a student publication solely belongs to its student editors. When a public university threatens that editorial independence, it’s a threat to the basic tenets of freedom of speech and of the press upon which this nation was founded, according to FIRE.