Butkowski: On the importance of student news and freedom of speech

Buffalo State College’s weekly student-run newspaper The Record assumed a new identity for its April 1 issue. Its satirical alter ego The Wreckard printed top stories about a ban on snacking by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and dismal voter turnout at student government elections. When Buffalo State’s United Student Government Executive Committee elected to freeze the paper’s budget without warning that evening, however, there was no “April Fools” attached.

As a representative of the student-funded, student government-recognized weekly newspaper at Geneseo, I would like to join the discourse surrounding this issue to emphasize that USG’s decision straightforwardly displays its members lack of understanding what student newspapers are for—not to mention interfering with the students’ right to free speech.

An email from the USG Executive Vice President Emily Leminger to The Record editorial board vaguely stated that The Record’s satire was “offensive to members of Buffalo State and the surrounding community,” without any information about who or how. It stipulated that, as a result, the paper’s USG-funded budget was frozen with no end date in sight and all 2,000 copies of the paper were to be removed from campus within less than 24 hours. The immediate response brought massive outrage from students, faculty, staff, community members, alumni and local and national news outlets.

USG apologized for a “mistake,” however, on Thursday April 2. The board released a poorly worded, grammatically weak statement on its Facebook page saying that it decided to unfreeze The Record’s budget because “communication is the most important tool of all and we would like The Record to be a wonderful platform for communication to our community.” Alongside the poster’s excessive use of exclamation marks, this rhetoric is deeply flawed.

Student-run or not, newspapers are not made to be “wonderful platforms” to ensure that their readers “feel comfortable and protected.” Honest, informative media for sharing student speech should not be made to feel precious. They should be unrestricted.

What USG doesn’t understand is that a student newspaper is about much more than a single issue or a select group of staff members. It doesn’t just provide information to the campus community, parents and alumni; it also establishes a historical record for future generations of students. Student newspapers are responsible for chronicling the campus events that won’t appear anywhere else. No other news outlets capture student attitudes toward campus sustainability efforts or fundraising for example, but these are conversations that need to take place.

Student newspapers—particularly those at relatively small colleges like Buffalo State and Geneseo—are based on the interweaving of professional and citizen journalism, with quick four-year turnovers and new reporters constantly requiring training. Not everything they produce will be perfect and newspapers are not immune from making mistakes that they must own up to. While satire differs from news, even offensive speech is protected under the freedom of the press clause of the First Amendment.

Known for its typically successful satire, The Onion published an article titled “College newspaper staff know exactly how they would respond if editorial freedom challenged.” While offering a hilarious commentary, the piece also does what good satire should: it shines some light on a seemingly monotonous issue.

Student journalists fight to publish within the college microcosm and in the face of frozen funding because they care so deeply about their ability to speak, contributing to a lively—if sometimes uncomfortable—campus community.