Censorious students at Wesleyan University pulled off a major coup last week—they convinced everyone that defunding the campus paper over its insufficiently glowing coverage of Black Lives Matter was actually good for diversity and even the environment.
In reality, those causes have nothing to do with the student government’s decision to cut the paper’s print budget in half. No, Wesleyan’s student activists just want to punish people for disagreeing with them, and their actions gravely threaten freedom of the press at Wesleyan.
It all started in the middle of September, when The Argus—Wesleyan’s main, twice-weekly student-run publication—printed a white conservative veteran’s op-ed about police brutality. As I wrote in a previous column, the author’s beef wasn’t really with Black Lives Matter, but rather anti-cop violence that he associated—wrongly, in my view—with more extreme elements of the police-brutality awareness movement.
Criticism—even the mostly off-base kind—makes us stronger. The author might have ultimately been wrong, but BlackLivesMatter activists could have still taken the opportunity to engage or educate him. They might have even discovered that some aspect of their message wasn’t sticking—that there was something worth doing differently, or better, or not at all. Movements succeed not by shunning dissent but by broadening their appeal and responding to new information. This is why the twin freedoms of speech and the press are so essential to true progressivism. They are also essential components of a healthy campus; without them, the learning process—the entire point of college—is stifled.
Unfortunately, a lot of liberals at Wesleyan couldn’t handle a little criticism. They circulated a petition asking the student government—the Wesleyan Student Assembly—to “revoke” The Argus’s funding until their demands were met. Said demands included mandatory diversity training for Argus staff, work-study positions to increase minority employment at The Argus, and a dedicated space in the paper for minority voices.
Some 170 members of the Wesleyan community signed the petition.
WSA leaders took note. On October 4, Assemblyman Alexander Garcia introduced a resolution (PDF) responsive to the demands. The proposal would cut The Argus’s print budget from $30,000 to $13,000 in order to pay for work-study positions at minority campus publications that print less frequently. It was approved last week by a vote of 27-0, though the final details won’t be hammered out until sometime in the future.
WSA’s members won’t concede that The Argus is being punished for occasionally humoring a conservative perspective. Instead, Garcia characterized the funding shuffle as a move geared toward increasing diversity and enhancing environmental sustainability—empty promises in the most well-intentioned of circumstances, transparent euphemisms for censorship in this case.
“Reducing Paper Waste by significantly cutting the amount of paper copies of The Wesleyan Argus prints,” the proposal reads. “Last year The Wesleyan Argus printed 3,000 copies a week, this year 2,400 copies a week.”
The petition-circulators disguised their crusade with similar doublespeak: Activists vowed to gather copies of The Argus and “recycle” them. By which they meant, destroy them. This insults the actual cause of environmentalism, and is a tactic long used by authoritarians to crack down on dissidents. Administrators at universities, for instance, occasionally cite recycling concerns as grounds to restrict the distribution of student newspapers. (I recall officials at my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, doing this exact thing during my time at the student paper, The Michigan Daily, in the late 2000s. They claimed stray newspapers were a safety hazard because people could trip over them.)
Nor is “diversity” a compelling reason to punish The Argus. It remains the case that Wesleyan is an overwhelmingly liberal campus where actual diversity would require a dilution of liberal voices, not a campaign to give them special attention on the front page. The Argus’s decision to allow a conservative perspective to appear in the paper arguably demonstrated a stronger commitment to diversity than the WSA has managed.
It’s true the WSA is tasked with the unenviable job of allocating funds to student groups. That’s a thorny issue, both at public universities—which are obligated to give equal funding to groups of equal status, irrespective of a group’s views—and private universities like Wesleyan—which can technically operate however they want but would be wise to follow the same rule of viewpoint nondiscrimination. As the Student Press Law Center wrote in response to The Argus funding question:
“Courts have found that, at public universities, proposing a change to the funding system motivated by a dislike of content can be a form of illegal censorship. But as a private school, the student government’s proposal wouldn’t be illegal, even if it meets the definition of censorship otherwise.”
Still, the WSA has a healthy pool of money to distribute. If it really wants to increase the number of minority staffers at campus publications—and believes work-study programs are the best way to do that—it could fund them without compromising The Argus’s print schedule.
If there’s any good news, it’s that The Argus funding proposal isn’t set in stone; the WSA approved the general framework, but hasn’t explicitly decided to fund its diversity initiatives at the expense of editorial freedom. Thus, the student government leaders still have the opportunity to disavow censorship, continue to fund The Argus, and secure other means to finance its pet projects. They should take it.
In the meantime, it’s a shame that Wesleyan’s student government has essentially sided against its free press. A campus with a newspaper held hostage by intolerant dictators is not a conducive place for the flourishing of free minds.