Virginia Tech’s recent flirtation with censorship was a transparent attempt to see how far the school could go in intimidating and possibly silencing its critics—specifically, the school’s newspaper, The Collegiate Times. The paper has been a forum for discussing what some have referred to as the school’s gross negligence in dealing with the events before, during, and after the shootings the April 16, 2007. Fortunately, the attempt by some members of the school’s hierarchy to throw away the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights failed.
The Collegiate Times, a student-led campus newspaper, is operated by an independent firm—Educational Media Company of Virginia Tech, Inc. (EMCVT). In a February 8, 2010 letter to EMCVT, Michelle McLeese, chair of Virginia Tech’s Commission on Student Affairs (CSA), threatened to cut all funding to EMCVT because of the paper’s willingness to print anonymous comments on its Web site. Apparently some comments on the blog offended members of the staff and faculty. McLeese said that publishing the anonymous comments violates Tech’s “Principles of Community.” [Her letter, the EMCVT response, and the Principles of Community appear at the end of the blog.]
The CSA’s letter laid out plans to cut university funding to the paper (even though it has no power to take such action), and to consider a ban on student organizations using university funds to buy advertising in the paper, school yearbook, and other publications owned by EMCVT.
No specific references were made to any Web site comments, and you have wonder why the Commission did not cite the objectionable passages. That specificity might have given their case some merit, though I doubt it. Indeed, the lack of specificity only deepens the impression that the school has other motives.
Furthermore, if anonymous comments are threatening or are in violation of state or federal laws, the school need only go to a judge and obtain a court order allowing authorities to have the Internet server identify the origin of the posting. The action must be done within 30 days of a posting. It is a very simple procedure. I would argue the last thing Virginia Tech wants to do is silence such comments; they can be an excellent way to identify individuals who might attempt a repetition of the horrific events of April 16, 2007.
The vast majority of blogs and Web sites allow anonymous comments. It is standard procedure. Some of these comments may step over the bounds of propriety, but as long as no laws are broken, they are protected under the Bill of Rights. Universities, of all places, should be champions of free speech. The free flow of ideas is the life-blood of institutions of higher learning. The school itself confirms the right to free speech in the “Principles” that it now says are being violated:
1. “We affirm the right of each person to express thoughts and opinions freely.”
2. “We encourage open expression with a climate of civility, sensitivity, and mutual respect.”
If the university is upset with an anonymous comment, why not write a rebuttal to set the record straight? Isn’t that be the correct course of action in a democracy?
The action of the Commission on Student Affairs prompted a storm of protests, and university spokesperson, Larry Hincker, subsequently told the Roanoke Times that the school does not support ending the contract with The Collegiate Times or its parent company, and is not contemplating a ban on advertising in the newspaper. Hincker further stated, “This is a student issue. These are students raising the issue with their fellow students, not an administrative issue.”
Given the tight-ship that school President Charles Steger runs, it stretches the limits of credibility to believe that the Commission on Student Affairs would have issued a warning to ECMVT and The Collegiate Times without at least tacit approval from the highest level of the school administration.
Letter to Educational Media Company of Virginia Tech
V I R G I N I A P O L Y T E C H N I C I N S T I T U T E A N D S T A T E U N I V E R S I T Y
Invent the Future
ommission on Student Affairs
Michelle McLeese, Chair
Blacksburg, Virginia 24060
email@example.com 540 250-2303
Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech, Inc.
General Manager, Kelly Wolff
362 Squires Student Center
Blacksburg, VA 24061
February 8, 2010
Dear Ms. Wolff:
I am writing regarding a decision just enacted upon by the Commission on Student Affairs at its February 4, 2010 meeting.
Last semester, Fall 2009, the Commission became aware of discontent among students, faculty, staff, administrators and others regarding the online commenting system through the Collegiate Times (CT). The consensus of the Commission has been that the commenting system is irresponsible and inappropriate because it lacks accountability resulting in, among other things, countering the Principles of Community. Therefore, members of the Commission, along with a few administrators and faculty at Virginia Tech, participated in dialogue with key members of the CT staff including Editor-in-Chief, Sara Mitchell, Managing Editor of Editorials, Peter Velz, Opinions Editor, Debra Houchins, and Public Editor, Justin Graves. It is not possible for me to describe at length or in detail all the concerns of the Commission and those involved, although there is certainly room for continued dialogue regarding this issue. All parties had some constructive comments and dialogue and there seemed to be promise of collaboration to help move in the direction of fixing a problem recognized by many on both sides.
However, this issue continues to be a problem according to the Commission on Student Affairs because the sentiment is that nothing further than discussion or talking about these problems has been accomplished. Meanwhile, individuals and groups are continuing to be victimized verbally by individuals enabled by the commenting system.
The Commission has now decided to take action through the governance system. Although it is true EMCVT is not directly affiliated with the University for legal reasons, it still retains some benefits from the cooperation of the University. One such benefit is some financial assistance received annually from VT; this contract is currently up for renewal. The Commission has enacted a verbal resolution to request Dr. Sims’ office not renew said financial contract with EMCVT until the Commission has resolved its discontent with the CT and its online commenting system effective immediately. In addition, the Commission discussed (and will decide at its February 18, 2010 meeting); the option of passing a verbal resolution that would immediately enact a policy with the Budget Boards at Virginia Tech to disqualify any funding requested to pay for advertising through the CT by student organizations. As a result, the Commission respectfully requests a meeting to attempt to reach mutual solutions or agreements to these concerns.
I thank you in advance for your time and attention. Should you have any questions or concerns please do not hesitate to contact me directly.
Chair, Commission on Student Affairs
CC Sara Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief of Collegiate Times
CC Ed Spencer, VP for Student Affairs
CC Guy Sims, Assistant VP for Student Affairs
CC Monica Hunter, Interim Director of Student Activities
February 11, 2010
Commission on Student Affairs
c/o Division of Student Affairs
112 Burruss (0250)
Blacksburg, VA 24061
Members of CSA:
Regarding the February 8, 2010 letter from Michelle McLeese, Chair of the Commission on Student Affairs (CSA), to Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech, Inc. (EMCVT) regarding online comments posted by members of the Virginia Tech community and others at collegiatetimes.com, EMCVT respectfully submits the following responses:
1) We have advised the Collegiate Times staff to discontinue discussions with CSA members, individually and collectively, on the topic of online comments. We sincerely welcomed the several concerned and impassioned University staff members and students who engaged Collegiate Times editors in a meaningful dialogue about the pros and cons of anonymity in online comments over two academic years and two editors-in-chief. A significant conversation with readers such as that, as well as the accompanying decision-making process for student editors, plays a valuable role in student media pedagogy. Both editors-in-chief, after considering many different points of view, decided to maintain anonymous commenting, just as a wealth of newspapers across the country have done. In addition to listening to different points of view, the editors also surveyed practices at professional and college news media, learned more about media law and debated the relationships among free speech, anonymity and democracy. It was an outstanding learning experience, one that advisers to student journalists appreciate.
But this is no longer a dialogue; it is coercion. This is made plain by the February 8 letter, a copy of which is enclosed.
As attempted punishment for content decisions made by the editors of the student newspaper, CSA has threatened to harm the financial and institutional support resources for the diverse co-curricular student media activities that hundreds of students choose to join each year.
All further communication on this topic will be conducted in writing with EMCVT.
2) It would be helpful for CSA members to have a basic understanding of EMCVT’s Relationship Agreement with the University to provide student media activity services in lieu of the Department of Student Activities doing so. This is especially true since the Relationship Agreement is a legally binding document between EMCVT, and the University, of which CSA is a part.
Until the University formed EMCVT in 1997, the student media groups were advised by UUSA staff and governed under the umbrella of the Student Media Board of Virginia Tech. The Collegiate Times is only one of seven registered student organizations (RSOs) advised under the umbrella of the Student Media Board’s successor, EMCVT. The others are the Bugle Yearbook, College Media Solutions, Silhouette literary and art magazine, Student Publications Photo Staff, VTTV Channel 33 and WUVT 90.7 FM. Among other things, the Relationship Agreement states the University’s historical relationship and rationale for affiliation with the student media organizations, establishes their RSO status, defines their editorial independence and provides the same support for student media activities, advising and administration as existed on average during the years 1993-94 through 1996-97.
To discontinue the Relationship Agreement with EMCVT would be to take apart the institutional structure of all of these student media organizations. It would be like shutting down Cranwell International Center and removing resources from the Council of International Student Organizations as well as all of its member organizations because of a disagreement with the Indian Student Association.
Certainly, under these circumstances, it would garner significant national attention for Virginia Tech to dismantle all of student media at the University in an attempt to control content at the student newspaper.
3) Your letter referenced EMCVT’s Relationship Agreement with the University by saying that “this contract is currently up for renewal.” That is wrong. The Agreement--paragraph --requires 24-month notice to rescind or to begin renegotiations of it, and EMCVT has neither given nor received such notice.
4) The Collegiate Times receives zero dollars in funding under the Relationship Agreement. The Collegiate Times instead has subsidized operations, advising staff, administrative support and capital equipment for the student organizations whose revenue does not fully support their operations. Should CSA’s proposed actions be implemented, EMCVT, while pursuing aggressive legal action to defend the free speech rights of students, would also be forced to consider each organization’s ability to survive on its own. It is likely that such actions would harm or distinctly limit the co-curricular activities available at WUVT, Silhouette, VTTV and the Bugle, but not at the Collegiate Times.
5) The Relationship Agreement (Paragraph 6) states “Except through its seats on the governing board of EMCVT or to the extent permitted by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Virginia Tech will not seek to assert editorial control over
It is unfortunate and surprising that the members of CSA apparently have not been advised that a resolution “to request Dr. Sims’ office not renew said financial contract with EMCVT until the Commission has resolved its discontent with the CT and its online commenting system effective immediately” is a clear violation of the University’s binding legal agreement not to assert control over editorial content, as is the pending resolution also referenced in the February 8 letter to advise Budget Board to disallow any student organization funding for Collegiate Times advertising.
The Association of College Unions International (ACUI) College Union Standards and Guidelines state:
“College Union (CU) staff members must be knowledgeable about and responsive to laws and regulations that relate to their respective responsibilities and that may pose legal obligations, limitations, or ramifications for the institution as a whole. As appropriate, staff members must inform users of programs and services, as well as officials, of legal obligations and limitations including constitutional, statutory, regulatory, and case law; mandatory laws and orders emanating from federal, state/provincial, and local governments; and the institution's policies.”
Regrettably, that appears to us not to have happened in this situation. From the minutes of CSA’s February 4 meeting: “Dr. Spencer noted that this can be taken all the way to the University Governance system to withdraw their support of the media association.”
Both courses of action proposed by CSA are also very clear violations of established First Amendment case law. They consist of a governmental body such as CSA or Budget Board attempting to restrict funding, legal advertising or other resources as punishment for student media content with which it disagrees.
If the professional members of CSA have not brought this relevant legal information to your attention, it would be advisable to consult University Counsel about CSA’s recent and planned resolutions regarding content published by theCollegiate Times. Kay Heidbreder sat on the University’s Media Incorporation Task Force in 1996-97 and is familiar with the issues and the Relationship Agreement. We would also suggest the Student Press Law Center (splc.org) as a resource to bring CSA members up to speed on the legal ramifications of censorship by a governmental entity. Here is an excerpt from the SPLC’s Web site:
"Student editors have the right to make all decisions related to the editorial and advertising content of student media. Courts have been consistent in ruling that at the public colleges and universities, school officials, including student government officers, may not exercise the power of a private publisher over student publications simply because they provide financial support. The fact that public universities are considered an arm of the state distinguishes them from a private publisher. Bazaar v. Fortune, 476 F.2d 570, aff'd en banc with modification, 489 F.2d 225(5th Cir. 1973)(per curiam, cert. denied, 416 U.S. 995(1974).
"As a result of these cases, it is now clear that:
"School officials cannot:
"(1) Censor or confiscate a publication, withdraw or reduce its funding, withhold student activities fees, prohibit lawful advertising, fire an editor or adviser, "stack" a student media board, discipline staff members or take any other action that is motivated by an attempt to control, manipulate or punish past or future content. Joyner v. Whiting; Schiff v. Williams, 477 F.2d 456(4th Cir. 1973); Leuth v. St. Clair County Comm. College, 732 F.Supp. 1410(E.D.Mich.1990); Kincaid v. Gibson, 236 F.3d 342 (6th Cir. 2001)(en banc)."
6) The Collegiate Times is a news organization and a means by which citizens may conduct a public dialogue on issues of importance to students and other constituents. We must clarify for CSA that the Collegiate Times has no role to play in the
University’s attempts, no matter how well-intentioned, to enforce speech codes that may be contained within the Principles of Community. In fact, upon reviewing CSA’s letter, the Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center noted that speech codes
have been struck down on campuses across the country, most recently at Temple University. He said, “the university is exposing the Principles to risk of legal challenge if it pursues this course of action, and one wonders whether anonymous comments on news
stories are really so important as to take that risk.”
“It is axiomatic that the government may not regulate speech based on its substantive content or the message it conveys. . . . Discrimination against speech because of its message is presumed to be unconstitutional. . . . When the government targets not subject matter, but particular views taken by speakers on a subject, the violation of the First Amendment is all the more blatant.”. Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995)
The letter threatening to punish EMCVT for apparently failing to take the “right” stance with respect to Principles of Community – which are not a part of the Relationship Agreement – is perhaps the clearest case of threatened viewpoint discrimination
7) EMCVT demands that CSA rescind the “verbal resolution” referenced in the February 8 letter and cease all attempts to assert control over the editorial content decisions of the student editors of the Collegiate Times. Should CSA continue to pursue this violation of students’ First Amendment rights, EMCVT will commence appropriate legal action against CSA and its individual members.
Further communication on the topic of online comments at the Collegiate Times or EMCVT’s Relationship Agreement with the University may be addressed to EMCVT at 362 Squires Student Center (0546), Blacksburg, VA 24061.
Kelly Wolff, General Manager
enclosures: CSA’s February 8 letter; CSA meeting minutes of February 4, 2010, November 5 & 19, 2009
cc: Kay Heidbreder, University Counsel
Larry Hincker, University Relations
Ed Spencer, DSA
Guy Sims, UUSA
Monica Hunter, UUSA
Gary Long, Faculty Senate
Tom Tucker, Staff Senate
Bob Denton, Department of Communication
Wat Hopkins, Department of Communication
Frank LoMonte, Student Press Law Center
Tonia Moxley, Roanoke Times
Karin Kapsidelis, Richmond Times Dispatch
Chronicle of Higher Education
Ginger Stanley, Virginia Press Association
Gene Policinski, First Amendment Center
Kent Willis, ACLU of Virginia
Cary Nelson, American Association of University Professors
Greg Lukianoff, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
Robert M. O'Neil, Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression
Joan Bertin, National Coalition Against Censorship
Donald Luse, Association of College Unions International
Sara Mitchell, Collegiate Times
David Grant, 2008-09 Collegiate Times editor-in-chief
Lynn Nystrom, College of Engineering
Rob Perry, President, Board of Directors, Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech, Inc.
Board of Directors, Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech, Inc.
Virginia Tech’s “Principles of Community
The "Virginia Tech Principles of Community" were affirmed by the board of visitors March 14, 2005, and signed by eight university organizations.
Virginia Tech is a public land-grant university, committed to teaching and learning, research, and outreach to the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. Learning from the experiences that shape Virginia Tech as an institution, we acknowledge those aspects of our legacy that reflected bias and exclusion. Therefore, we adopt and practice the following principles as fundamental to our on-going efforts to increase access and inclusion and to create a community that nurtures learning and growth for all of its members:
We affirm the inherent dignity and value of every person and strive to maintain a climate for work and learning based on mutual respect and understanding.
We affirm the right of each person to express thoughts and opinions freely. We encourage open expression within a climate of civility, sensitivity, and mutual respect.
We affirm the value of human diversity because it enriches our lives and the University. We acknowledge and respect our differences while affirming our common humanity.
We reject all forms of prejudice and discrimination, including those based on age, color, disability, gender, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, and veteran status.
We take individual and collective responsibility for helping to eliminate bias and discrimination and for increasing our own understanding of these issues through education, training, and interaction with others.
We pledge our collective commitment to these principles in the spirit of the Virginia Tech motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
Ben J. Davenport Jr., Rector, Board of Visitors Charles W. Steger, President W. Samuel Easterling, President, Faculty Senate Sue Ellen Crocker, President, Staff Senate Sumeet Bagai, President, Student Government Association Myrna Callison and Yvette Quintela, Co-Vice Presidents, Graduate Student Assembly Kimball "Jay" Reynolds, President, Virginia Tech Alumni Association Ray Plaza, Chair, Commission on Equal Opportunity and Diversity
Last updated: March 2005