Wesleyan University – September 2015 – March 2016

Student government attacks student newspaper for publishing controversial editorial

Middletown, CT

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.

Key Players

Bryan Stascavage (Wesleyan Class of 2018) authored an opinion-editorial 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. 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 (Wesleyan Class of 2016) served as president of the Wesleyan Student Assembly for the 2015-2016 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 opinion-editorial 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.

Further Details

In September 2015, sophomore Bryan Stascavage authored an opinion-editorial in The Wesleyan 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 Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) that an African-American 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,” Rebecca Brill, co-editor of The Argus, told 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 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. He was blindsided by the apology, 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 CJR. The Wesleyan student government provided “most of The Argus’ operating cash,” CJR reports. Wesleyan Student Assembly President Kate Cullen 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,” CJR said.

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 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 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 in order 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 CJR. This policy change would force The Argus to “print only once a week and fire paid staff,” noted 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.

University President Michael Roth, 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 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 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.

Outcome

Controversial Editorial Causes Student Government to Threatened Student Newspaper’s Funding

An opinion-editorial 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 Became More Diverse in Wake of Controversy

The Wesleyan Argus took steps to increase diversity among the editorial staff after the opinion-editorial about Black Lives Matter sparked major backlash. The paper increased recruitment efforts for minority journalists and dedicated a column to minority voices.

Administration Supported Free Speech

Wesleyan University President Michael 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.

External References:

Reporters flocked to a campus controversy but missed its surprising conclusion, Columbia Journalism Review

Wesleyan Student Government Plans to Recall Funding From Argus, The Hartford Courant

My Liberal University Cemented My Vote for Trump, The New York Times

Op-ed in Wesleyan Argus sparks outrage, petition to defund newspaper, Southern Poverty Law Center

Group Petitions to Defund Wesleyan’s Campus Newspaper, Saying It’s Not a ‘Safe Space’, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think, The Wesleyan Argus

Petition Against the Wesleyan Argus

Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech, Wesleyan President Michael Roth

An Open Letter to the Wesleyan Community from Students of Color

The Uncomfortable Truth About Free Speech, The Hartford Courant

Editorial: We Need to Protect Publication Finances From WSA Politics, The Wesleyan Argus

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

August 22, 2017