Freedom of speech is perhaps the most touted aspect of the US Constitution’s First Amendment. However, it’s important to acknowledge that the Founding Fathers believed it important to make an extra designation for the freedom of the press. Of all types of freedom of speech, freedom of the press is perhaps the most crucial to democracy and to critical and open dialogue.
The fake news epidemic has swept the US, and even if the exact term is not used, the sentiment that the press needs to please people, rather than inform them, has become incredibly pervasive—even at the student newspaper level.
A recent conflict between The Criterion and the Colorado Mesa University Associated Student Government demonstrates that this dangerous disregard of free speech and open information is plaguing CMU as well.
Two weeks ago, before ASG, Language, Literature and Mass Communication Sen. Richard Nguyen announced that he had filed an official grievance against Editor in Chief Alec Williams and The Criterion.
Sen. Nguyen cited the Nov. 14 article “Sodexo: Employee admitted to lewd messages and quit” for his main reasoning. He claimed The Criterion had violated the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, without citing any specific ethic that had been violated. He also taped a copy of the Code of Ethics to Williams’ private office door, instead of speaking with editors in person or writing a letter to the editor.
Now, no matter what students think of this publishing decision, whether they think it did not deserve to be in the newspaper, online or upon the lips of students across campus, it did not violate anything: nothing in US law, nothing in ASG constitutional law, nothing in the University guidelines, nothing in the SPJ Code of Ethics or Associated Press style. Nothing.
The Criterion made this decision because the campus deserved to know what an employee, who served them coffee and bagels on this campus, had allegedly written to another human being. It would be more unethical to shield that truth, a truth that was readily available on Facebook.
The screenshots of these messages were shared by and to hundreds of people, without context, and it is the duty of a newspaper to share that information in its fullest and most accurate sense.
But, the debate over the Sodexo article is not the most important issue here. The problem that The Criterion brought before the student government on November 29 is that an ASG senator filed a grievance against the newspaper because he did not agree with the opinions being expressed. This was not inferred; Sen. Nguyen was very candid and expressed this clearly in his writing.
In his grievance, Sen. Nguyen discusses the Sodexo article for only 129 words, spending the remaining 229 complaining about the legal and independent decisions within the student newspaper. It seems that Sen. Nguyen used a very upsetting story about a woman being threatened with sexual assault as an opportunity to silence his student newspaper. It does not seem to be a coincidence that The Criterion published an editorial critical of ASG in that very same edition.
While this case was quickly dismissed by the ASG Supreme Court, his intentions and the implications behind them signify a disturbing reality. Perhaps equally disturbing is that the grievance submitted by The Criterion in response, arguing that Sen. Nguyen did not uphold his responsibilities as an ASG senator, was dismissed as well on December 3.
It seems the ASG Supreme Court would rather brush this unpleasant topic under the rug rather than consider its disturbing implications.
Sen. Nguyen, despite his claims, and ASG senators, through their lack of substantial and thoughtful responses to the issue, seem to not truly value The Criterion’s freedom to exercise the first amendment, or the ASG Constitution student bill of rights, Article 2, Section A:
“This right includes the freedom of campus media to engage in meaningful discussion of student issues without fear of financial retribution from the Associated Student Government.”
In his grievance, Sen. Nguyen suggests that The Criterion does not deserve its funding because he disagrees with the opinions freely and legally expressed by the students at this university, his constituents:
“Other reasons that have led to this grievance just boils down to our student fee’s [sic] being wasted on hearing opinions in our newspaper.”
Sen. Nguyen’s actions have given the best reason for The Criterion to continue to seek independence from Student Life and remove their budget from the control of ASG.
The Criterion has been critical of ASG this year—something that is not only necessary for a healthy student democracy, but is also the role of a newspaper. The Criterion does not apologize for those opinions in the same way that editors would not expect an apology for any of the opinions students voice about the newspaper.
But, ASG and other students need to recognize a newspaper has the freedom to express concerns on the behalf of other Mavericks.
By choosing to not investigate this matter, ASG has set a dangerous precedent and communicated to other organizations that their budgets may not be secure if they don’t toe the line.
The Criterion is a learning opportunity, just as other organizations and ASG itself is. These organizations are intended to be places where students can make mistakes, push boundaries and learn from their actions. However, unlike the implications Nguyen’s grievance, The Criterion has never called for ASG budgets to be cut, or for any senators to lose their pay.
ASG representatives must recognize the immense power that they hold, as well as understand what their actions (or lack of action) communicate to other organizations. If they allow senators to file grievances that call for unconstitutional action without even an investigation into the matter, they are telling students that they value their own camaraderie more than objectivity and justice.