I am writing to urge the Wesleyan Student Assembly to reconsider its recently approved proposal that threatens to cut the Argus’s budget.  As a Wesleyan alumnus and long-time journalist, I was alarmed to learn that the Student Assembly had unanimously approved an initial plan that would punish the Argus largely because of a single unpopular column.

Although some members of the Student Assembly deny it, that plan smacks of censorship. While I’m all for establishing work-study positions at the Argus to make it easier for less affluent students to work there, it unfortunately appears that the Student Assembly would finance those work-study positions by taking money from other important parts of the Argus’s budget. To me and to many others, that is, plain and simple, a partial defunding of the Argus.

The Student Assembly’s plan tentatively envisions cutting the Argus’s print budget to $13,000 from $30,000.  Some Student Assembly members maintain that they have not formally voted for a partial defunding of the Argus, although their initial vote strongly indicates plans to do exactly that.  Along with many others, I view the plan to slash the print budget as an attack on free speech and freedom of the press – a move that apparently aims to punish the Argus for its much-criticized Op-Ed by Bryan Stascavage.

While the Student Assembly has good intentions in seeking to increase diversity at the Argus, it has failed to make a convincing case that its plan to partially defund the Argus isn’t a direct response to protests over the Stascavage column.

Like many in the Wesleyan community, I thought it was a mistake for the Argus’s editors to publish that column in the form it ran. I found parts of that column poorly argued, poorly reasoned and outright incendiary, and I believe the editors should have required the writer to refine his arguments before publishing his article.  In my view, it was wrong and offensive for Stascavage to suggest that Black Lives Matter was not legitimate, as if people of color don’t have full First Amendment rights to protest police killings of unarmed civilians.

As part of our nation’s great history of free speech, people and the press are given wide latitude to say and publish inaccurate, poorly reasoned and even incendiary things. At a liberal arts college that is supposed to cherish and champion free speech and the robust exchange of ideas, the way to respond to such statements is with more speech and more argument. It is not to censor or to punish – or in this case, to partially defund the Argus.

To me, it seems positively Orwellian for some supporters of the Student Assembly’s plan to suggest that their move to cut funding for the Argus’s print run has nothing to do with censorship, retaliation or the Stascavage column.

If the Student Assembly thinks that the Argus’s staff doesn’t have enough diversity, then make that known to the Argus’s editors and give them the rest of the school year to achieve more diversity. And if by next September the diversity situation hasn’t improved sufficiently, then take action next September.  But to act so soon after the protests about the Stascavage column makes the Student Assembly seem intolerant and anti-free speech. And if the Student Assembly thinks the Argus’s print budget is too high, fine, but don’t all of a sudden map plans to cut that budget so soon after Stascavage’s article appeared.

I imagine that there are many ways to finance work-study positions at the Argus that would not involve diverting money from other parts of the Argus’s budget.  Indeed, I have faith in the Student Assembly and the Wesleyan administration that they can figure out how to finance the work-study positions in ways that don’t undermine free speech and freedom of the press.

As I said, the Argus, in my view, made a mistake in running the Stascavage column in the form it ran. We all make mistakes.  College is a learning experience in which we are expected to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. As a former editor-in-chief of the Argus, I was very proud that the Argus’s editors realized and admitted that they had made a mistake and then wrote a thoughtful editorial apologizing and promising to address problems of diversity.

I hope that the Student Assembly will similarly acknowledge that it made a mistake in approving its initial resolution envisioning cuts in the Argus’s print budget.   I hope the Student Assembly has the wisdom to reverse that decision.

If not, many people inside and outside the Wesleyan community will not soon forget how the 2015-2016 Student Assembly kicked free speech in the teeth by approving an initial resolution to partially defund the Argus — all over a single misguided student article.

Greenhouse is a member of the Class of 1973. He is a retired New York Times reporter and a former Editor-in-Chief of The Argus. Last fall he taught a Wesleyan course on nonfiction writing and journalism. 

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  • johnwesley

    I see the WSA vote a little differently. For one thing, I take them at their word. I believe they were sincere in their attempt at a practical solution to a knotty and emotion-laden problem that had been placed at their doorstep. They did the university a tremendous favor by helping the original petitioners to climb down from some of their more extreme demands and I’m delighted that it was due entirely to the efforts, however clumsily attained, of students themselves and not by the in-fighting of administrators, faculty and other so-called, “responsible adults’. Furthermore, I am quite frankly surprised by the degree to which cutting ties to an outmoded method of distributing news and other content – the printing press – should be controversial in this day and age. In retrospect, the WSA might have raised fewer questions by seeking money from sources other than cost-cutting, but, I hardly blame them. I join Mr. Greenhouse in his hope that the whole issue of economic diversity at The Argus, and how it is to be financed, be revisited some time sooner than later.

  • Mark Sirota

    Mr. Greenhouse, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments in your comments, but I would tweak them just a bit. Although the column in question had weaknesses as you described, I would hesitate to make the blanket statement that the Argus should not have run it in that form. It seems to me the Argus should apply the same standards to editing all the opinion columns it runs. If in general it insists that columns be well written and well reasoned before publishing them, certainly it should have done so with this column. And of course it would be good if the Argus did that in general. I would just hate to single out a column and demand that treatment for it in particular, because it raises the spectre of applying a different standard for opinion columns based on the viewpoints expressed in them. Same thing regarding your comment about the WSA demanding diversity. If the WSA has a general campaign to demand that student groups diversify – assuming that is a realistic and appropriate goal – then certainly it is reasonable for it to treat all similarly situated groups the same. But again, for the same reason I would hesitate to suggest it would be legitimate for the WSA to target a particular student group for diversification especially under these circumstances.

  • geruta51

    Mr. Greenhouse takes up important issues in this letter. It would be very disheartening to me if the Student Assembly does not follow his advice and find better ways to address diversity concerns at the Argus. Wesleyan should be a model for fighting dis-information and error with more and better information. It should not be a place for stealth censorship. George Ruta ’73