I sent this letter to the entire faculty. A few friends  and concerned colleagues wrote to me separately, but no one replied on the group site. Why?



January 18, 2015

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing this letter in response to a Press Release posted on the Student Life page of the University regarding the closure of the Bulldog Weekly. The comments and questions in this letter are my own opinions, based on my experience as a member of the Bulldog Advisory Committee, and as an invited participant at the meeting on December 11th, when the student newspaper was shut down.

According to the Press Release “The University had no role in this action with the student paper.” In fact, the University’s Student Life Department had a remarkably strong influence while this misguided action was conceived and set in motion. The ASUR consulted Student Life but not its own newspaper Advisory Committee or The Bulldog’s Advisor, Erin Aubry Kaplan, a professional journalist and former Los Angeles Times columnist hired to assist students.

In the PR the ASUR’s actions are justified as follows:

Over one month, the ASUR Cabinet reviewed every story in every issue of the Weekly from this semester and talked to some reporters and co-editors. The ASUR decided, among other things, that the paper is not of acceptable journalistic quality, is not a good representation of students' voices, and may represent wasted funds ($40,000) and other resources.

On what grounds did they draw such drastic conclusions? In the absence of consulting the paper's advisor, what experts in the field of journalistic ethics did the ASUR consult? And how did these experts arrive at the conclusions that led to this action?  

Wasted funds? This is an educational institution, and many resources are available to instruct and improve poor performance in journalistic research methods, athletics, or any other student endeavor. A newspaper should not be shuttered because its financial managers don’t think they are getting their money's worth. 

The press release on the Student Life page also relates the following:

ASUR has stated that no one article influenced its decision; rather, a much larger, consistent pattern was found during the review. ASUR found that a quotation in a recent article was fabricated.

The naming of this quote as “fabrication” utterly fails to understand how journalism works. This is unsurprising given the University’s failure to consult with Ms. Kaplan, a respected journalist. Had they consulted with her, they would have understood that it is common practice for a reporter to return to the source of her quote for clarification. If the University and its constituents felt that the Bulldog Weekly published false claims, they should have had a discussion with Ms. Kaplan and asked for a retraction and published a letter to the editors. This common practice would have cleared the issue up in an ethical way. Instead, the University precipitated a public relations disaster, one that has reached local and national press.

In addition, the PR claims that the paper was shut down because “ASUR found that the paper’s print run of just a few-hundred has returns of unread papers almost as big as the print run itself.”  As a member of the Bulldog Advisory Committee, I can confirm that over several years, The Bulldog has requested a page on the University website. Student editors were told that our newspaper was not internet-ready, because its “poor quality” made it unworthy of wider
circulation.

The Press Release also claims “the ASUR says that the paper’s suspension could be brief, but it will depend on an independent committee’s engagement in a transparent, inclusive process to re-envision the paper.” In the service of transparency, I would like to know if, as a recent article claims, Vice President and Dean of Student Life Char Burgess directed the ASUR president and others to remove copies of the newspaper from common areas?

While the ASUR press release misrepresents, point by point, the process by which the paper was shut down, it does not in any way address the broader questions of a) the importance of a student newspaper, b) the importance of journalistic protection in the forms of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, or c) the problematic structure of a student newspaper that is entirely dependent on the whims of student government.

Finally, if the University disowns involvement in this action, surely they can take this moment to endorse a public discussion regarding censorship, free expression and students’ rights. After all, this is the same University that is proudly hosting James Fallows, a nationally respected journalist who is unafraid to write about controversial issues. We all have the right to be informed. As teachers and scholars it is our responsibility to protect free speech whenever it is threatened.

I urge the University community to join concerned students on Tuesday at noon on the Administration building steps, to protest the peremptory closure of the student newspaper. 

Sincerely,

Leslie Brody
Professor, Creative Writing Department

For those interested in seeing the Press Release here is a link:
http://www.redlands.edu/student-life/20784.aspx#.VLwm6d4VzzK


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