Our first reaction was shock.
When Mustang News received a tip that two candidates for Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) president had been fined $100 each after they or their campaign staff spoke with Mustang News, we didn’t think it could be true.
Not only would that violate candidates’ rights to speak freely with whomever they choose, we knew it would interfere with our newsgathering process (and it has; multiple sources have stopped returning our phone calls, for fear they or their friends might get fined).
As it turned out, the tip was accurate. Each time we published the name of the candidates—including reporting on the fines—it triggered a violation of the ASI Elections Code, setting off calls from the student body to stop publishing their names despite the fact we were within our rights to do so.
Based on the comments online, hardly anyone seemed to notice it was ASI who determines whether to hand down the fines, not Mustang News.
A rule designed to limit campaign posters had expanded in its scope to wrap the press in its poorly worded language, and Mustang News was caught in the mess. And it wasn’t just the press; anyone posting about the candidates on social media, commenting with their names on articles, or even just texting the names to their friends technically endangered the candidates’ status in the race.
The newsroom staff is accustomed to administration officials and ASI not being as transparent and available as we’d like, but never before had our independence from the school been so threatened. Because as much as we criticize the university for its closed-door approach to several issues, we’ve always been thankful that they’ve respected our independence as a news organization serving the community.
It’s vital to the campus and surrounding area that there is an entity frequently reporting in an objective way what happens there. Several of the stories about Cal Poly that end up affecting the San Luis Obispo community begin with student reporters asking questions and open the way for local, regional, or national media to take a harder look at the campus.
Independent student media, with its tightly knit relationship with campus, can scoop professional media and shed light on events that local reporters may not have had the time to uncover. This year, three stories Mustang News broke—the Colonial Bros and Navajos party, Greek life banning shots and hard alcohol at parties, and the current elections code debate—ended up in national headlines. And without our independence, Cal Poly might not have had to address those important issues.
But when student government, or any part of the university, attempts to sanction others based on what we cover, it starts chipping away at that objectivity. In this case, had we not challenged ASI’s elections code, we would have only 10 days to vet the candidates that will end up at the top of the student government org chart; that’s not nearly enough time to find out what they bring to the table and press them on complicated issues.
What makes independence especially true for student media is that there is a substantial power colleges have over their students. Students are naturally inclined to listen to people older and with more authority than themselves, and who can blame them? While the public closely watches city government officials for violations of citizens’ rights, the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities can punish students at its discretion in closed-door, FERPA-protected meetings.
Cal Poly hasn’t taken action against reporters or campus newspaper advisers since we’ve been here, but it happens at other schools around the country. The threat is one we’re very much aware of.
In 2012, for example, a student in a journalism class at the State University of New York-Oswego was suspended after asking questions in a way that administrators deemed “disruptive behavior”: e.g. “harassment,” “intimidation,” “threats,” “conduct which inhibits the peace or safety of members of the college community,” and “retaliation, harassment, or coercion.”
What earned him these charges? An email to the school’s rival hockey coach asking for comment on their own coach, with the note that “what you say about Mr. Gosek does not have to be positive.”
To be fair, the student also got in trouble for identifying himself as a university staff member, which was only partly true. But the fact that simply asking questions—and expecting a forthright answer—could earn charges of disruptive behavior is a threat to the ability of the press to check the powerful leaders of a government-run university.
While this kind of episode hasn’t yet hit Cal Poly, it’s a fact here that under the current ASI election policy, debate is limited. And when debate is limited, critical thought is as well. That, combined with the lack of a free press that can print factual information without fear of repercussion, is how bad ideas become bad policies. ∆
J.J. Jenkins is editor-in-chief for Mustang News, and Sean McMinn is digital managing editor for news. Send comments to the New Times executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.