Montclair SGA stops student newspaper

In a controversial decision that some believe could have repercussions for college media across the state, the Student Government Association (SGA) of Montclair State University halted printing for the first Spring issue of the student newspaper.

The editors of The Montclarion discovered their budget was frozen, preventing them from printing, on Tuesday, Jan. 22, the first day of the Spring semester. In an exclusive interview, SGA executive president Ron Chicken said The Montclarion violated SGA policy. Chicken said they did this by refusing to turn over correspondences between themselves and their attorney. The Montclarion consulted a private attorney about SGA’s potential violation of New Jersey sunshine laws, which prohibit public bodies from conducting closed meetings. According to Chicken, The Montclarion should have consulted SGA’s attorney.

“This is not a question of censorship,” Chicken said. “It’s a matter of them (the staff of The Montclarion) breaking rules and regulations that they’ve agreed to follow.”

Although Montclarion attorney Sal Anderton has since been released from service, Chicken is requesting that correspondence between Anderton and Editor-in-Chief Karl de Vries be turned over to SGA. De Vries refused to disclose the documents, citing attorney-client privilege. As of press time, The Montclarion was still without the funds necessary to print, but was publishing online.

Lawyers say Chicken’s move could have legal ramifications that would affect college papers across the country because of the ease with which a student government organization stopped a student newspaper from printing. Chicken, however, maintained that SGA was simply following its financial policy.

The Lawyer Controversy

A letter signed by Chicken and executive treasurer Melissa Revesz told The Montclarion that its budget was frozen because the newspaper had spent its SGA-allocated funds illegally by using them on Anderton without having a contract approved by SGA. In addition to the letter, The Montclarion’s printer, RFM Printing, was contacted by SGA and told not to print until further notice.

Chicken said that if The Montclarion wanted legal counsel, it could have utilized Schiller & Pittenger, P.C., the official legal counsel of SGA. The Montclarion is not independent from SGA.

De Vries felt this system was flawed, however.

He said if SGA’s lawyer was to advise or represent The Montclarion, he would be “representing his client against his client.”

According to Peter Schaus, managing editor of The Montclarion, the former SGA president approved Anderton, himself a former Montclair SGA president, as the newspaper’s lawyer.

Chicken, however, objected to the paper pursuing an independent lawyer.

“How is it possible that there is a separate attorney for The Montclarion to sue SGA?” Chicken said. “It’s all part of one organization. You can’t sue yourself.”

Anderton’s attorney, Chris Adams, said it would be a conflict of interest if The Montclarion had used SGA’s attorney. He said the lawyer would be legally obligated to say no to counseling the paper. SGA’s lawyer would be unable to advise the paper on matters about SGA.

“It’s contrary to all legal principles,” he said.

As of press time, SGA’s lawyer was unavailable for comment.

Douglas McIntyre serves as both chief copy editor for The Montclarion and executive secretary for SGA. He said he stands by SGA’s decision.

“I don’t feel conflicted because I stand by what the executive board (of SGA) decided,” he said.

McIntyre said in previous years The Montclarion had been told by SGA administrations that it was following SGA policy by talking to an outside lawyer. McIntyre said this year, however, SGA members realized that it was not their policy and are working to fix it.

Joe Specchio, attorney general for SGA, asserted that SGA is simply following a policy. However, he said he understands the implications of shutting down the newspaper.

“I could see how it looks like we’re repressing the voice of the school,” he said. “You’re taking away something the college needs. It looks bad.”

Specchio, whose duty is to advise student organizations on the school’s laws and policies, said he did not vote for shutting down the budget and is unhappy that he was not consulted.

He said he believes the legislature of SGA will unfreeze the newspaper’s budget at its Wednesday meeting and added that actions may be taken within SGA in the future to challenge Chicken’s authority.

The Documents

Although the matter will be addressed at SGA’s Wednesday meeting, neither Chicken nor de Vries seemed likely to budge on turning over the documents.

Chicken said because de Vries never had a valid contract with Anderton, no attorney-client privilege ever existed.

He said the newspaper was contacted several times since September asking for the correspondence. He said that because SGA is separate from Montclair and The Montclarion is “a media organization of SGA,” SGA was technically Anderton’s client. Due to this, SGA should be able to have all the correspondences from the attorney, Chicken said.

“I will not hand over the correspondence between myself and the attorney. That is attorney-client privilege,” de Vries said.

Adams, Anderton’s attorney, said de Vries will not turn over the documents under any circumstances.

“He has an attorney-client privilege,” he said. “No request from Mr. Chicken or his lawyer is going to do anything eviscerating that privilege.”

SGA attorney general Specchio agreed.

“(De Vries) believes in attorney-client privilege. There’s nothing in those letters,” he said. “He doesn’t want to be strong-armed by SGA.”

De Vries did say, though, that The Montclarion is not a separate entity from SGA.

Chicken said SGA has about $33,000 in its budget for the newspaper this semester for printing costs.

“We’re not independent of them in any sense, unfortunately,” De Vries said.

The newspaper generates about $50,000 a semester in ad revenue, but until recently, Chicken said, most of this ad money went to SGA and only a small portion was re-allocated back to the paper. Chicken said he and the SGA executive treasurer, Revesz, recently instituted a policy that allows the newspaper to use all of its ad revenue.

Legal Implications

Chicken’s actions attracted media attention because of the lack of legal precedent surrounding censorship of college media.

Mike Hiestand, an attorney and consultant for the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), said student newspapers are rarely shut down, and never for “such an outrageous excuse.”

Tom Cafferty of the New Jersey Press Association’s legal hotline agreed.

“I’ve never heard of it before at a college paper,” he said.

Hiestand said SGA is clearly violating the law.

“The law really is clear,” Hiestand said.

“Student government at public colleges cannot shut down student publications.”

Adams agreed.

“To think that the elected student official of a public university has such little respect or knowledge of the First Amendment is scary,” he said.

Hiestand said SGA is not justified in requesting to see the documents.

“It’s outrageous to think that the student government thinks they have the right to violate attorney-client privilege,” he said.

Adams said Anderton would not represent The Montclarion if a legal battle ensues because he is a witness, but said SPLC is setting up lawyers to represent the paper. Adams said the paper could bring a lawsuit either against Montclair, or Chicken as an individual. He encouraged the school to advise Chicken to drop the request.

School administrators did not immediately return phone calls requesting a comment as of press time.

Hiestand and Cafferty both said other college papers should be concerned.

“Every college paper needs to be very concerned,” Hiestand said. “The president (Chicken) doesn’t seem to care what the law says. He just wants to do what he wants to do.”

“If the decision stands, then I would think this is something other New Jersey papers should be worried about,” Cafferty said. “It could have profound implications.”

De Vries agreed that The Montclarion’s dilemma could have far-reaching consequences for all college media.

“This is much more than whether or not (Montclair) has a printed paper,” he said. “Every student newspaper should be terrified of what’s happening at Montclair.”

Hitting Home for the College

Unlike the College, Montclair’s SGA also acts as its Student Finance Board (SFB).

Chicken explained that the system is modeled off of the federal government. Montclair’s SGA contains a judicial, legislative and executive branch, as well as an executive board for cabinet officers who work with the executive president.

All checks and balances for the SGA come internally. This system is part of the reason Chicken and others feel they are legitimately upholding their financial policies.

Leo Acevedo, SFB executive director at the College, said the College’s system, which defines SFB, SGA and all student organizations as separate groups, is more beneficial to students.

“It completely factors out politics,” Acevedo said.

Dan Scapardine, vice president of Legal & Governmental affairs for the College’s SGA, lauded the split system here. He noted that the SGA has “no control over The Signal and that’s the way to do it.”

The SGA does, however, have to approve any amendments made to The Signal’s constitution.

Additionally, SFB can freeze The Signal’s budget if the newspaper is in violation of policies and has as recently as last semester.

However, because of The Signal’s independence and because it is largely funded through its own ad revenue, the temporary budgetary freeze did not halt or disrupt The Signal’s publication in any way.

“Thank goodness that we have a separate SGA and a separate student board,” Acevedo said. “Whether we finance (a group) or not, they’re still independent organizations.”

Scapardine said that to him, the situation at Montclair seemed like a case of SGA asserting authority.

“It’s probably a case of them (SGA) reasserting their authority over the newspaper,” he said.

“Obviously, it can be resolved in a more diplomatic way.”