After censorship debacle, USG welcomes First Amendment reform

On the heels of a tumultuous censorship issue that attracted national attention, Student Union Director and United Students Government Adviser Sarah Velez announced a new program that will educate USG on student media’s First Amendment rights.

United Students Government President Ashleigh-Ann Sutherland said she is in favor of a measure prohibiting USG from altering the budgets of student media organizations based on the content they produce.

USG President-elect Derek Jorden and Executive Vice President Emily Leminger, who will continue her position on USG’s executive board next year, also said they are in favor of such a measure. Sutherland, Jorden and Leminger made clear that their opinions were their own and did not represent USG as a whole.

Velez said that beginning this summer, experts in the field of media law would be utilized to teach members of the student government the ins and outs of the First Amendment.

The idea first came after USG responded to The Record’s April Fools issue, The Wreckard, by freezing the newspaper’s budget and demanding all issues be pulled from stands. A swift social media outcry caused local and national media to pick up the story and the decision was quickly reversed.

Former Executive Editor of The Record Julia Merulla thinks the April Fools incident occurred due to a lack of training.

“I really think that a lot of the conflict that USG has had with The Record has come from USG not understanding either The Record’s liberties as a a newspaper under the First Amendment or USG not understanding how journalism works,” Merulla said. “So sometimes people would get up in arms over something over some perceived mistake or transgression that we had made when the reporter was just doing their job.”

Merulla recalled an instance when then-USG President Sarah Garfinkel became angry that The Record had printed a quote she said at a public meeting without her permission.

“It’s no wonder that there’s conflict when someone is elected to office who’s never worked with the media or press before,” Merulla said. “When story comes out and they’re quoted in a public meeting and they think ‘I should have been asked,’ that’s not a courtesy that’s afforded to you. I think just understanding basic things like that would reduce a lot of that conflict.”

Former Record Executive Editor and current Editor of Loop Magazine Michael Rizzo said he is no stranger to conflicts between The Record and USG. He said if there are not fundamental changes to the way in which USG is allowed to operate with The Record, problems between the two organizations will continue to occur.

“I think the real problem is that it’s not, as much as we all love to believe it is, this is not a real world experience,” Rizzo said. “You will never see a business model like The Record’s in the real world. You will, it just won’t be a newspaper. It’ll be a public relations periodical that will say what the funder wants it to say.

“It happens every semester,” Rizzo said, but noted that not all problems involving USG had to do with the First Amendment.

Rizzo said he noticed an animosity toward The Record in 2007 after USG passed a proposal drafted by then-President Matthew Levin-Stankevich despite being aware that the proposal was in violation of the New York State Open Meetings Law.

Rizzo covered the story and quoted Levin-Stankevich as saying USG senators “should not feel intimidated” by the presence of students when discussing budget “with their questions and concerns.”

In a 2007 column about the issue, Rizzo addressed another instance of USG’s illegal lack of transparency.

“Last week, The Record asked to tape record the Senate Meeting — something that should not be an issue in an open meeting, yet a clause in the USG Constitutions bans [it],” he wrote. “Case law and opinion agree with our side of the argument, but the body was so opposed that they never even bothered to vote. They just told us no.”

The Record continued to serve as the watchdog of the student body, Rizzo said, which ruffled USG’s feathers. He covered a probable propaganda campaign in which Levin-Stankevich publicized a student grievance against his electoral opponent without ever revealing who filed it.

The Record also covered an incident where the USG executive board voted to give their sitting president a $1,000 Target gift card out of the student activity fee following an apartment fire. After the story was published, the gift was returned.

But when Rizzo was hospitalized after an apartment fire of his own, USG temporarily froze The Record’s budget due to his absence from a mandatory meeting.

“I was like, ‘Yo, I was in the hospital,'” Rizzo said. “And they were like, ‘Well why didn’t you call?'”

When Record staff tried to find the gift card story in our archive, they came across this note instead, penned by former Executive Editor Julia Merulla:

“Hard copies of The Record’s Spring 2010 issues are unavailable due to The Great Newspaper Heist of 2011, wherein the then-USG president Lindsay Porter confiscated threw out what she perceived to be “extra copies” of The Record.”

Merulla said Record staff specifically requested the issues not be taken, as no other hard copies existed, but Porter took them anyway.

Rizzo pointed out that unlike most of his experiences, The Record’s budget freeze following the April Fools issue seemed to come from USG’s lack of awareness of its role with student media rather than spite.

“USG messes up all the time. You know, they’re kids,” Rizzo said. “I mean, put yourself in their shoes. They think they’re getting involved in campus and throwing parties and giving everybody a nice environment to work in.

“And then you’ve got The Record, which has a budget which is quadruple — ten times as much as the other organizations. So in their head, they’re like ‘We’ve given them so much money! Why would they write anything bad about us?’ ”

Merulla said that besides being protected by the First Amendment, USG needs to understand that The Record is different than most student organizations.

“A lot of the issue is that USG hasn’t fully understood how The Record operates and the ways in which it’s different than other campus organizations,” Merulla said. “I know USG has to view everybody the same and treat everyone the same, and I’m sympathetic to that. But we’re producing something every single week, and if we’re not, then we’re not doing our job.

“It’s not a club. It becomes a social organization in some ways because people are together and interacting all the time, but it’s also an office where you can be fired. You can be let go if you’re not up to par. You can be replaced. I don’t think there are many organizations where you can say that.”

Leminger agrees that additional training is necessary to prevent future conflicts.

“It was so blurry to us because it’s like, The Record is our organization, so do we have the ability to say ‘our organization shouldn’t say things like this?’ But we don’t,” Leminger said. “We should have researched it and we should have asked our adviser, but we didn’t.”

She also wants to ensure that future members of USG aren’t subjected to harassment for facing decisions they weren’t prepared to make.

“It got really crazy,” Leminger said. “I got personal emails that were not very nice. If people understood how student governments work and how not-for-profit boards work, I didn’t even get a vote. But it was my email [announcing the budget freeze]. One guy hyperlinked my Facebook page to one of the articles, so people were sending me threatening messages. Some guy attached a photo of a Nazi rally next to my picture on the Daily Caller. People went after my LinkedIn page, I had to take that down after a while.”

“But you can’t get mad at The Record for that,” Leminger added. “You can’t control what people say.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @kathyfromsales