The ongoing dispute between student leaders at Montclair State University could have broad implications reaching far beyond the bounds of the campus there. The Montclarion, the student newspaper at the university, had its budget frozen last Tuesday, Jan. 22, after Ron Chicken, executive president of Montclair’s Student Government Association (SGA), said the newspaper violated SGA’s policies. He said the paper’s staff did so by corresponding with a private attorney in an attempt to force SGA into holding more open meetings in accordance with state sunshine laws.
Chicken is right – the newspaper did violate SGA financial policy. But this situation is not on the radars of college and professional newspapers all over as a study in student government. What editors, writers and readers of student media are concerned about is the precedent of a student government shutting down a student publication.
The Montclarion is not like The Signal. Unfortunately, because of The Montclarion’s status as a media organization of SGA, which is a separate entity from the university, the newspaper is not independent.
The Signal enjoys a greater amount of independence. Yes, this newspaper receives certain things from the Student Finance Board (SFB) – the salaries of the top two editors and one new computer per year for example. However, the cost of all of these things is overshadowed by the ad revenue The Signal generates itself and uses to pay for printing.
The Montclarion is produced in a terrible situation for any newspaper. It is technically part of the Montclair SGA.
Not only that, the entity of which every newspaper is designed to be a watchdog, the government, may not be subject to open public meetings laws in the case of the Montclair SGA. And unlike The Signal, The Montclarion has no control over the ad revenue it generates. At Montclair, SGA holds the newspaper’s purse strings. For this reason, the only place The Montclarion’s editorial is appearing in print this week is on the previous page.
Should this dispute ever go to court, the possibility of a legal precedent harming the independence of college publications everywhere is all too real.
For high school newspapers, all it took was one ruling against one high school newspaper to set a legal precedent infringing on the First Amendment rights of all high school newspapers. It is scary to think that all it could take is this one dispute, if it ever became a larger issue, to set the same type of legal precedent for college and university newspapers.
We don’t believe the SGA of Montclair is acting with the intention of setting a permanently damning legal precedent for all college media. Its members seem to genuinely believe it is simply a matter of financial policy.
But the terrifying reality is that if this issue isn’t resolved quietly, the rights and protections currently provided for college and university presses could be diluted or even revoked entirely.