Editors of The Michigan Every Three Weekly relented in the face of pressure from the University Activities Center and Athletic Department officials last month when they decided to cease distribution of stories that Executive Associate Athletic Director Mike Stevenson found offensive. Stevenson talked with officials at UAC as well as E3W editors, raising concerns about the content of the satirical newspaper — which proclaimed that Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was attending the University to “major in pussy.” While Stevenson may believe that some of the content that the E3W presented was “unbecoming” of students at the University, he — as an employee of the University — had no right to pressure the E3W into reconsidering its editorial content before the board that provides its funding. UAC is legally prohibited from censoring the content of student-run publications that it funds. The University must explain to UAC and Stevenson that the E3W has freedom of press and afford it this right.
What could have been a simple content-related complaint has turned into a matter of First Amendment rights and how they apply to student-run, University-funded publications. This situation could have been avoided if Stevenson had chosen to first file his complaints with the editor in chief of the E3W. If Stevenson’s purpose was only to voice concerns over the content of the paper, he should have brought up those content disagreements with E3W editors, who have a legitimate right to control editorial content in the publication. By involving the E3W’s source of funding, however, Stevenson took specific steps toward stripping the E3W’s editors and staff of their constitutionally protected right to free expression.
More troubling than Stevenson’s actions is that UAC executives seem to think they have the power to enforce his requests. While UAC President Mark Hindelang said that UAC has no immediate plans to exercise editorial control over the E3W, he commented, “The UAC executive board has the right to tell the E3W not to print whatever we want.” It is troubling that UAC executives are more inclined to mollify administrators than to protect the rights of students. Although UAC executive board members may be concerned about offending the administration, UAC spends University funds and therefore is obligated to allocate them as University administrators must. The administration also has a responsibility to ensure that UAC does this.
Furthermore, U.S. Supreme Court cases, such as Tinker vs. Des Moines in 1969 and Kincaid vs. Gibson in 2001, protect the First Amendment rights of student-run publications. The cases state that public schools and student governments cannot censor student-run publications or cut their funding for punitive reasons.
E3W editors should recognize their strong legal standing and rebuff efforts by the UAC executive board to oversee the E3W’s editorial content. Administrators and UAC officials who feel they have a right to influence the content of a student-run publication simply because it is not independently funded, must first adhere to their legal obligations. The E3W and all University-funded, student-run publications should be free from University encroachment.