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Virginia Tech threatens school paper over web comments

Jenna Johnson

CampusMedia.jpgA Virginia Tech committee has threatened to recommend that the university cut funding to all student media on campus if the student-led newspaper, the Collegiate Times, continues to allow anonymous comments on its Web site, according to documents released by the newspaper's parent company Friday morning.

At a meeting of the University Commission on Student Affairs last week, representatives decided to recommend the university stop its annual $70,000 contribution to Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech Inc., an independent entity that oversees campus media, including the newspaper, radio station, television station, yearbook and literary magazine. The commission is made up of students, faculty, staff members and administrators, according to its Web site.

The story was first reported by The Roanoke Times.

"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," Michelle McLeese, the commission chair, wrote in a letter to the media company on Monday. While the issue has been discussed at length, she wrote that nothing has changed and "individuals and groups are continuing to be victimized verbally by individuals enabled by the commenting system."

The commission is also considering a recommendation that the university ban student organizations from using university funds to purchase advertisements in the newspaper, which could put the Collegiate Times out of business.

Both actions are "clear violations of established First Amendment case law" and the media company will take "aggressive legal action to defend the free speech rights of students," said Kelly Wolff, general manager of the media company, in a letter to the commission on Thursday. Wolff added that while the media company receives funding from the university, the student newspaper does not receive any of the university money, although it does receive free office space in the student union.

"As attempted punishment for content decisions made by the editors of the student newspaper, [the commission] 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," Wolff wrote.

Like nearly all student and professional newspaper Web sites in the country, the Collegiate Times allows readers to post comments at the end of stories. Often these comments contain racist, profane, inappropriate or offensive language or ideas. The paper uses a filter that screens profanity, pornography and spam. Readers can also flag objectionable comments for editors to review.

The university review began two years ago after some incidences of violence on campus led to racist posts on the student paper's web site, Wolff said.

The commission is scheduled to meet again on Feb. 18 to discuss a possible advertising ban.

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By Jenna Johnson  |  February 12, 2010; 1:21 PM ET
Categories:  Campus Media  | Tags: VA Tech  
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It's interesting to see a university trying to restrain the free flow of ideas based on their content. I hope the journalism community comes out strongly in support of the student newspaper.

Posted by: tomtildrum | February 12, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

"inappropriate because it lacks accountability"

Let's see, by that logic, The Federalists, was inappropriate because it lacked accountability at the time and should have been censored as violating the Principles of the Community (what the hell does that mean and who gets to decide these principles?) Americans have a long history of writing anonomously--Publius, A Pennsylvania Farmer, Friend of Liberty, etc.

Free speech means that ugly people get to say ugly things about other people without accountability. Because the right of speech is so valuable and so fragile, it is best to let it be...obviosuly, there is a huge difference between the Federalist and racist slurs, but I for one do not want some "commisioners" deciding how to articulate that difference with punitive actions. Ridiculous.

Posted by: Daedulus | February 12, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

"Free speech means that ugly people get to say ugly things about other people without accountability." Uh, no. No, it does not.

To compare racist and obscene comments posted on the Web to the anonymous writings of the framers: That's rich, my man. Post comments under your real name. Or don't. But if you don't, and if you then feel licensed to act a fool and slur people, threaten, write racist inanities, etc., guess what? Inconvenient consequences may follow. There is no constitutional requirement that any public university must provide a platform for anonymous, raging, immature racists to scream at each other online. God help us if that becomes the new definition of "free speech."

And: Student newspapers should publish from off campuses, they should pay their own way, and they should stop relying on their universities to provide them free office space as well as stipends and other perks. I used to write for a great student newspaper. Best writing job of my life. Student newspapers do great work. But as a group they tend to whine like children when they don't get what they want.

Posted by: Craig_Colgan | February 12, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

They can handle this just like they do at every other legitimate media outlet, and that is to flag comments that are considered ugly and remove them, along with blocking those people from posting comments in the future.

As for freedom of speech, get real people. You can't walk into a theatre and yell fire, etc., etc. Individual rights are only guarenteed until they infringe on the rights of others.

Posted by: Ireland2 | February 12, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

I know that Thomas Jefferson is associated with UVA and not VA Tech, but it still strikes me as ironic that the higher education system of Mr. Jefferson's home state is trying to limit free speech. Shame on VA Tech.

Posted by: tomguy1 | February 12, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Easy solution to anyone not wanting censorship on the web....

Run your own darn website from home... Keep your servers in your house.

When "The Man" comes calling demanding you do something or other with the site, you can then tell them politely to piss off and stay off your property.

There is no law preventing someone from setting up a personal PGP secure website (Do NOT use the government or typical industry standard required encryption due to back-door access) and portal to keep the nosy people busy for a while.... Even the ISPs and College firewalls wont be able to tell WHAT you are doing, only the IP address you are communicating with.

When they ask you for logs, Oh well, so sorry... You dont keep any; and there is NOTHING they can do about it.

If you want to retain your liberties, it starts by studying history and adapting to the enemies tactics.

In this case, take a page out of Obama's playbook. That being if you dont like something, change the playing field AND rules of the game they are whining about and wanting to shove down your throats.

Posted by: indep2 | February 12, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

This is not a First Amendment issue. CT will just not receive funding. If the CT wants to accept the government money then they have to accept the terms.

Now is this stupid of the University? Yes. But the CT can survive in an e-format; just allow the students to print out their pizza coupons.

Posted by: taser | February 12, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

The schools name is not "Virginia Tech University". I think you mean to use a small U in that first sentence.

Posted by: ghokee | February 12, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

States limit behavior, which speech is. We call it morality, codified as law. On top of that, citizens have codes of honor, many of which demand that those who would be taken seriously when they speak look their listeners in the eye. Writing from a distance, we sign our names instead. This takes courage, which citizenship demands. No scholar publishes research anonymously. No teacher hides beneath a desk. They are children who ring the doorbell and run away, hoping not to be seen. They make crank calls, hoping never to be caught. Adults speak to each other directly. College is supposed to be for adults. I like that about Virginia Tech. Acting like adults should be a condition of enjoying the privileges of our community. With rights go responsibilities, just as with funding comes constraints. Scholarship is for grownups.

Posted by: NealKing | February 12, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

What is Virginia Tech University?

Posted by: SupportAndDefendTheConstitution | February 12, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

I think there is quite a bit of overkill going on here on VPI's part. Threatening to cut ALL funding for ALL student media now over comments made 2 years ago seems not to be justice of any kind. Did the radio station have anything to do with the posts? No... The yearbook? The literary magazine? No, and No...

Does the college have a responsibility to distance itself from hate-filled racist comments? Certainly. However, pulling all funding from student media doesn't send the message the committee seeks. It comes across as a punishment to folks who actually haven't done anything wrong. It also takes away any state control of that student media. Can students find a way to still publish content about campus and its happenings? Sure... with or with the $70,000 from the college. I imagine that there enough people in Virginia interested in free speech rights of students to come up with enough money to keep media working at Virginia Tech. I'm not sure that the college would benefit from that arrangement.

Posted by: deedr00 | February 12, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

That's okay, it's only a matter of time before liberals support the's okay to stifle the press if "they" write negative things about speech for liberals, gagging for everyone else!!!

Posted by: WildBill1 | February 12, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

and as we all know, being able to click on "report abuse" has really stopped the ugly and racist comments on blogs! Has anyone ever noticed that you can't actually report abuse at all?

Posted by: fmjk | February 12, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

First the $70k subsidy is provided to EMCVT not directly to the CT. Those funds are used to subsidize the administrative overhead that was formerly provided by VT when all the student media organizations were under the Student Media Board. Also, those funds have not increased since 1997, so all the increased costs due to inflation, etc. are covered by the revenue generated by the CT.

The issue is that the CT will would survive the lack of the $70,000; however, other student media would suffer. EMCVT provides a host of advising and production support services for the student radio (WUVT), the student literary magazine (Silhouette), and the student television (VTTV). These are the non-revenue positive media organizations. The CT actually further subsidizes the operations of the organizations.

And it's an issue of individual and student rights' on University campuses.

Posted by: rperry | February 12, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

"Principles of Community"

Sounds Orwellian.

Posted by: gth1 | February 12, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

@taser - Actually is fairly established First Amendment issue through existing case law.

In addition is also a breach of contract issue pertaining to the Relationship agreement that EMCVT has with the University.

The Student Press Law Association has some information regarding the actions University's may not take toward college newspapers.

From the SPLC:

"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).

(2) Demand the right to review publications before distribution. Antonelli v. Hammond, 308 F.Supp. 1329 (D.Mass 1970).

Students cannot:

Student government officials are subject to the same First Amendment restraints as school administrators. For example, they cannot punish a paper's staff or advisor or withdraw a publication's funds for content-based reasons. State Board for Community Colleges v. Olson, 687 P.2d 429 (Colo. 1984), appeal after remand, 759 P.2d 829 (Colo. Ct.App. 1988)." SPLC

Posted by: rperry | February 12, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

That such an issue has arose, simply illustrates the continuing collapse of our basic civility. The problem has always existed, but the "fish bowl" is dirtier and more cramped than ever before, making it all the worse.

Anyone attending a university should be of a minimal caliber in terms of intellectual and social faculties.

Crass, vulgar, and barbaric perople should not be in an academic setting, which is meant to foster personal growth and future opportunities for qualified individuals. They spoil the experience of attending school for everyone else.

Most citizens of this dying country, are not college material. Sadly, universities have become obcessed in their quest for the mighty dollar. Clearly, too many of those who have received diplomas, did not deserve them or in any fashion, but simply bought them.

As is often said, a college diploma and one dollar can buy you a cup of coffee.

Posted by: misterbumbles | February 12, 2010 7:42 PM | Report abuse

When one juxtaposes this free speech issue with the latest Supreme Court decision (Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission), the criticism of EMCVT by Va Tech is nothing short of small mindedness.

The Washington Post allows commentary on most articles (like this one), which more often than not, has its' share of invective, personal attacks, inflexible ideological assertions, and inappropriate language from posters who conceal themselves behind internet pseudonyms.

A better filtering mechanism might improve the relationship with VT. Also, a student forum might be considered, from a paternalistic standpoint, not to be the same as that used by the Post, but the justification for withholding funds - "Principal of Community" is one of the weakest excuses I have ever heard.

The Collegiate Times should consider adopting the operating standard of UVA's Cavalier Daily. The CD self supports by means of advertising and accepts no funding from the University.

Lots of corporate money has just been unleashed thanks to SCOTUS, unleveling the political playing field. But heaven help us if a college media outlet allows some "inappropriate" comments.

VT's reaction sounds like the phony indignation of Dana Carvey's old SNL "Church Lady" character .

Posted by: MillPond2 | February 12, 2010 7:53 PM | Report abuse

One does not have to be a member of Virginia Tech's campus to comment on the web we do not necessarily know if the comments were made by students, faculty, staff, or random people. I honestly don't know... therefore, I am in no position to rail about the caliber of the students at Virginia Tech. It really doesn't have anything to do with the issue at hand.

I do not live in the Washington, DC area, for example, and yet I am commenting here about a topic that means something to me. I agree that civility seems to be a dying art-- it would help if the current generation had better role models for this. Unfortunately, some of the posts on this article are already examples of hyperbole and name-calling.

I agree with rperry on the unfairness to ALL student media over this. The radio station, TV station, and literary magazine had nothing to do with the controversy... and really neither did the staff of the student newspaper. Again, this seems like overkill on the college's part.

Posted by: deedr00 | February 12, 2010 8:04 PM | Report abuse

Anyone who fears the power of truth over lies in a free contest of ideas suffers from limited intellect and most likely compromised ideals of their own.

Posted by: patrick3 | February 12, 2010 8:11 PM | Report abuse

Those aged 18-20 are also adults and not "kids" or "teens", meaning they shouldn't be called those terms. The Virginia Tech committee has gone overboard in trying to stop funding to media at that university because of comments in the Collegiate Times. The Collegiate Times website for comments is responsible because it allows users to report comments so that they can be deleted.

Posted by: LibertyForAll | February 12, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that the recommendation to cease all funding of media is indeed quite strong, given that the issue cited is the commenting system. I doubt that the commenting system has anything to do with the yearbook. I have no doubt that they would be able to find plenty of ways to make up some of the lost revenue. Anyone in Blacksburg can tell you that the Collegiate Times is great advertising space! However, it does seem like an incredibly drastic reaction to an issue that should with by the web editor in charge of the commenting areas.

The other thing that shocks me is that the university would go so far as to consider a ban against student organizations using their money for ads in the Collegiate Times. Not only is this incredibly detrimental to the Times, but denies student organizations the right to advertising space.

Tech's behavior makes it clear that the university is not viewing any student media as worth the time or support of the school. Not only does this speak volumes about their concern for news, truth, and student voices, but it also further displays that the school refuses to treat the students as the most important part of the school.

Posted by: esallie | February 15, 2010 4:50 AM | Report abuse

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