Accused of Censorship, Senate Reverses Foghorn Cutbacks

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EDITOR’S NOTE:  This story was produced in its entirety by Professor Michael Robertson’s advanced reporting class with no editing from the Foghorn staff. Since the Foghorn is one of the parties in the dispute, the staff did not want to risk having bias or a conflict of interest affect the quality of the reporting. 

Tanya Dzekon
Contributing Writer

On Friday, Johnny Chibnall, ASUSF Senate President, announced that the Executive Board had reversed the senate’s May vote to reduce the Foghorn to a bi-weekly newspaper. If the paper met senate standards for quality journalism, senate said four months ago, the paper would be allowed to resume its weekly run next spring.

Now the Foghorn will be able to publish this fall the usual 13 issues instead of eight. The Executive Board’s reversal came days after senate was presented a letter from The Student Press Law Center (SPLC), an organization advocating for student journalists’ First Amendment rights. The letter argued that the original senate decision constituted censorship and was in violation of the “Leonard Law”, a California law that applies the First Amendment to private universities like USF.

Johnny Chibnall, ASUSF President
Johnny Chibnall, ASUSF President

In an interview after the reversal, Chibnall said the letter from the Student Press Law Center “was an interesting letter, and the Executive Board was very aware of it, and we were discussing it, but that’s all I can say. I have opinions on it, but it’s in legalese and I don’t speak legalese and we just want to bring it back to the issue of a hand in the quality of the paper.”

Chibnall did not further address the reasoning behind the Executive Board’s decision.

When a reporter noted that senators were rebuffing her attempts to interview them, Chibnall explained that most of this year’s senators are new and don’t have the proper context to comment on the situation yet. When Ajouni Singh, last semester’s VP of Internal Affairs was contacted, she said she could not comment on the issue “out of respect for the current team.”

Madeline Vanden Branden, editor-in-chief of the Foghorn, was thrilled to hear that the newspaper would return to weekly publication.  “We’ve been fighting for this for a long time, and it’s great we finally got our issues back. More students are getting their voices heard every week.”

Foghorn advisor Teresa Moore said, “I’m happy for student media and for the USF community, but I wish I could believe that the reversal was motivated by the ethical arguments we made last spring — that it is wrong for the government — any democratically elected government — to control and inhibit the people’s access to information and discourse. ASUSF Senate and the Foghorn are both charged with representing student interests; both are essential for a healthy campus.”

Privett Scolds Foghorn For ‘Hiding’ Behind Letter

Not everyone shared this enthusiasm about the senate retreat. Earlier in the week, USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J., said, “Are these types of publishing decisions always a good thing? No. But I think [the Senate] should have a legal right to do this.

After the Friday announcement, Privett responded, “I think the Student Senate made a mistake by backing off its initial decision regarding funding for

the Foghorn. The threat of a lawsuit is phony and for the Foghorn to hide behind the threat of a law suit is inappropriate.”

Heidi Patton, Foghorn sports editor, was disturbed by Privett’s comments. “Father Privett should be proud of us for standing up for our rights,” Patton

Father Stephen Privett, S.J., University President
Father Stephen Privett, S.J., University President

said. “It frustrates me as a student at his university that he doesn’t see the direct conflict of interest at play here,” she added.

Patton has been with the paper since the beginning of her freshman year and authored the recent staff editorial calling for a new funding system for the paper so that senate does not have de facto control of the Foghorn.

That was one of the points addressed in the SPLC letter, written by Frank LoMonte, Esq., the group’s Executive Director. “Making budget decisions on the basis of displeasure with a student publication’s content not only is unlawful, but is an educationally unsound decision,” he wrote. He strongly advised USF finding ways to guarantee funding for student publications to protect them from interference.

Senate Backs Off Challenge To Foghorn ‘Quality’

In May, Chibnall said the senate decision had nothing to do with the Foghorn’s selection of material. He explained the budget cuts as an effort to motivate. “This isn’t jail, this is rehabilitation. We are helping (the Foghorn) to get better. We are not sending them to the gallows. We are sending them to the hospital to help them get better.”

On Friday, Chibnall reiterated that Senate had no problems with editorial content. He said what the Senate took issue with was grammatical errors and linking up pictures with the proper stories. “This was always about the constituents and them being proud of the paper and putting out quality stuff,” he said.

However, the LoMonte letter warned that one must be careful not to define censorship too narrowly:

“While we often hear ‘quality’ cited as the justification for punitive action against a student publication, withholding funding, firing the adviser, removing the editor, ‘quality’ is a perilously slippery rationale because it is so subjective,” he wrote. “If simply making a mistake became a legitimate justification for the withdrawal of funding, then the First Amendment would cease to exist at campus publications, since it will always be possible for censors to find mistakes in a publication at any level.”

LoMonte added, “Campus budget committees do not micro-manage other student organizations, or hold them to subjective standards of perfection, when deciding their level of funding. They do not reduce the funding of the glee club because the choral director chose a disagreeable piece of music, reduce the funding for intramural football because the team drops too many passes, or reduce the funding of the marching band because a drummer fell out of step.”

In his Friday interview, Chibnall also said, “Senate will not be implementing a review system that will hold the Foghorn accountable. We will be encouraging them and supporting them in any way that they need help,” though he did not specify what form that help would take.

Patton agreed that the Foghorn staff would like to like to produce a cleaner paper with fewer mistakes. “We are a fully student run organization with a frequent turnover of staff members. We are learning on the job – there really isn’t another option. Take a close look at some professional publications and I guarantee you will find both mistakes and a corrections box from the last issue. Perfect just doesn’t happen.”

Former Foghorn editor James Tedford had this perspective: “The Senate as much as the Foghorn is an experiment for students to learn real-world roles. They are going to make mistakes along the way.”

In an email to the Journalism 2 class, which is responsible for this story, Teresa Moore explained the limits of her role as advisor. “I advise the Foghorn. I don’t edit it.”

Moore said she trains staff at the beginning of the semester and does extensive critiques the day the paper comes out. “But I don’t check the editors’ work before the paper is published. That is what is called ‘prior review,’ and it is illegal under the Leonard Law.”

She said neither she nor the Foghorn staff was aware of the Leonard Law until “about a week ago.” We weren’t engaging in prior review because it defeats the purpose of having a student paper if the end product is the work of a non-student professional.”

Although senate has reinstated the Foghorn as a weekly, the issue of funding remains. “I think the University needs to find a way to fund student media outside of government,” said Bernadette Barker-Plummer, the chair of USF’s Media Studies department. “It’s a conflict if media can’t report on government. I think there’s a teaching moment here. It’s not something that needs to be hostile,” she added.

Gregory Wolcott, assistant vice provost for student engagement – essentially an advisor to the student senate – felt that the issue was communication. “It’s always good to bring people together and have conversations about process, about the success of each organization. I would definitely like to see more consultation between the Foghorn and the Senate,” Wolcott said.

9 COMMENTS

  1. First they make millions off of KUSF’s FM, next they reduce the foghorn. What is with this school not giving the media-driven students the college experience they’re paying for?

  2. Great to hear the Foghorn is fighting the damn good fight to reinstate its regular production of weekly issues.

    If “quality journalism” is measured by spelling words correctly and matching up the right pictures with the appropriate captions, and not the integrity and merit of reporting, then this entire matter is pretty laughable. Get a grip, Senate, and perhaps take a closer look at the shoddy judgments made based on so-called student “government.” I can’t say it better than how Heidi put it: Working with a student club and organization requires learning on the job. There isn’t any other way.

    Impressive article.

  3. Great article! As an alumni and former Foghorn editor, I appreciate the fact that the current Foghorn staff are working to protect their First Amendment rights. Again, excellent article and I look forward to reading more.

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