Redlands co-EICS weigh in on newspaper shutdown and the right to free speech

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On Dec. 11, 2014, we co-editors of the student newspaper, The Bulldog Weekly, at the University of Redlands sat down with our advisory board for a routine meeting regarding the paper. We were told that the meeting would consist of getting feedback. What we did not expect was being told that our newspaper’s funding had been cut.

It came as a shock, but we knew exactly why. It is important for us as journalists to provide the following full story, blemishes and all. Transparency is something we have valued throughout this process, especially since our university’s administration and student government have depended on behind-closed-doors tactics and refusal to accept responsibility in the face of this controversy. They may want to protect the school’s image, but we have nothing to hide.

A few months before, we ran a story about $35 million donated to the university by alumni Richard and Virginia Hunsaker toward a scholarship aimed at students with “entrepreneurial spirit,” among other qualifications. We quoted a student who believed that the scholarship “is targeted at a very specific group—rich, white males.”

The day after the story ran, the writer of this article told us that an administrator and the president of Associated Students of the University of Redlands (ASUR), our student government and provider of The Bulldog Weekly’s budget, had asked for a private meeting with her. Strangely, they had not contacted either of us first, or at all.

On the same day, every copy of our newspaper mysteriously vanished from the common areas around school. We later found out that Vice President and Dean of Student Life Char Burgess had personally called the ASUR president and asked him to remove the newspapers.

At the Dec. 11 meeting, the ASUR president and the administrators present proclaimed that The Weekly would be placed on “temporary hiatus” due to “quality issues.” They accused our writer of fabricating the Hunsaker quote.

But it certainly was not that simple. Before starting the article, our writer knew that many students believed the scholarship was biased. She mentioned as much to Erin Aubry Kaplan, our journalistic advisor employed by the university. But when our writer originally collected quotes, the “rich, white males” bit wasn’t included. Kaplan asked her to go back to the person quoted for clarification.

Our writer returned to the person she had collected the quote from and affirmed that “specific group” indeed referred to “rich, white males.”

So the quote was fed, not fabricated. This was poor judgment on our writer’s part, and for that reason, we should not have run that quote.

Did we as co-editors make a mistake? Yes. Was it grounds for shutting down our newspaper? No. ASUR put our newspaper on hold largely based on our printing an opinion that did not shed a favorable light on the university. This is an issue of censorship.

After the hiatus was announced, the administration and student government formed a committee that was meant to address the many ambiguous claims of quality issues leveled against The Weekly. We were told that we would be allowed to pick a few people to sit on this committee.

One of the people we suggested was Kaplan. This suggestion was rejected. Kaplan’s place on the committee was filled by an employee of the university’s public relations department with past experience in journalism.

The replacement of Kaplan harkened back to a similar exclusion. When the Dec. 11 meeting took place, Kaplan was not initially invited despite being a member of the advisory board. It took pressure from several board members to ensure a place for Kaplan at the meeting.

Kaplan, a black woman and fervent defender of equal treatment, shares the opinion with us that the connection between the racial nature of the “rich, white males” quote and her repeated exclusion from this process was not coincidental.

The exclusion of Kaplan, the repeated failures on the part of the administration and student government to contact or initiate open discussion with the paper’s co-editors as well as the framing of the events following the hiatus, lead us to believe that the purpose for this punitive action has been strategically disguised as an issue of “quality.”

It is known among student journalists, through folklore or firsthand experience like ours, that universities often struggle with their student publications. The troubling dynamic between The Weekly and administration and student government is almost as much a part of the fabric of the University of Redlands as the high-minded value of liberal arts education.

If the hiatus has demonstrated anything to us, it is that a free press is a value that is shared by people all over our campus and beyond it. Students organized a rally on Jan. 20. Over 40 members of the faculty signed a reinstatement petition. Student journalists as far as Dublin have even written about the shutdown.

What all of these people have in common is a desire to be connected to the world and the people that surround them. We believe that external, institutional forces should not be able to diminish that connection.

Days before our fourth and last committee meeting, we met with The Weekly staff and we all agreed that going online, and independent, was the best and only option for the future. We launched a GoFundMe campaign and were formally dismissed from the committee within days of its circulation.

The move to go independent was spurred by an urgent need to reestablish what we consider one of the primary sites of inter-campus connection. The committee claims to have a similar goal. But as long as the student paper is not entirely student-run, it is always possible that when the aims of the paper and the administration conflict, the paper will be vulnerable once again.

As of now, The Bulldog Weekly will be known simply as The Bulldog. We and our staff are energized and ready to continue doing journalism and engaging with the events and people of the school we love.

Our GoFundMe can be found here. The Bulldog is soon to come!

Taylor Holmes ’15 and Morgan York ’15 are co-editors in chief of The Bulldog Weekly at the University of Redlands.