As information continues to emerge in Wichita regarding the student government’s decision to slash The Sunflower’s budget and the issue of how “open” the meetings should be, it makes more sense to clarify these things in new post than to try to rework the old one.
(If you haven’t read the whole backstory on WSU’s student government, The Sunflower (the student newspaper) and the general weirdness that has led to a lot of student media folks keeping an eye on this situation, you can do so here. Short version: The paper submitted its budget, asking for a return to the $158,000 it received prior to a massive cut a few years back. The SGA met in closed session, despite protestations of the paper and other journalists, and decided to slash the budget it had almost in half. It then defended its right to do all of this without providing much rationale.)
Here are a couple updates/housecleaning items:
- The budget cut that was proposed reduced the paper’s allocation from $105,000 to $55,000. The numbers in the previous post ($100K and $50K) came from notes I took during a discussion with EIC Chance Swaim. I’m sure it’s my fault, not his. Either way, it’s basically cutting the money for the paper in half. The original amount the paper requested was $158,000, which would have restored funding to an amount the paper had received for years prior to a major cut about three or four years ago, depending on how you measure the time span. I did find in my notes, however, that Swaim explained that the paper has records going back to the early 1990s and the paper had NEVER operated in that time span with as little SGA funding as had been proposed during the closed-door meeting.
- The Student Senate at WSU tabled the discussion of student fees and sent the matter back to committee for further discussion. This happened after Teri Hall, the vice president for student affairs, read a statement from the university’s president, calling for the fee committee to meet in open session to discuss these issues. This means The Sunflower’s budget is still up in the air, but it also means that deliberations will likely take place sometime in the next week at an open meeting of the fee committee. The president, John Bardo, did not issue any statement regarding the previous decisions the committee made, so it’s unclear where he stands on the funding issue.
- Media folks are taking a stand on behalf of The Sunflower. An editorial in the Wichita Eagle supported the paper while listing a number of quality pieces of journalism The Sunflower has produced over the past year or so. In many of those cases, the paper questioned administrative actions that looked a bit “off” or situations that had the appearance of a conflict of interest. An article from the staff of the Student Press Law Center dug into the issue of “censorship via funding cuts” and also outlined a variety of reasons why the paper might be on the hot seat. One item cited in the report was an article the paper published last year about current WSU SGA President Paige Hungate’s parents. The article outlines a criminal investigation “for battery and anti-black, hate “fighting words” following an altercation at a student government banquet.” Her parents have been accused of using racial slurs against Student Body President Emeritus Joseph Shepard when he stated in his farewell speech that Hungate was not his “first choice” for president. Paige Hungate has stated repeatedly that the funding cut “has nothing to with content or coverage” produced in The Sunflower.
- According to the SPLC article, Hungate stated the reason the SGA is not required to hold open meetings in this situation is based on a 1977 attorney general’s opinion. The opinion was issued in response to a question pertaining to the Student Senate at Kansas State University and its use of secret ballots to determine the election of its officers. The opinion notes:
[T]he decisions of the Student Senate themselves do not carry the official authority of those officers and employees entrusted by law with the supervision, management and administration of the University. Thus, I cannot but conclude that the Senate does not exercise the administrative authority of the State of Kansas, of the Board of Regents, or of the president of Kansas State University, and thus does not fall within the compass of the Kansas open meeting law.
With all of that in mind, this leads to two questions worth asking and one thought worth knowing:
Should the meeting in which the fees were debated have been open? The SPLC quotes legal scholar Frank LoMonte as saying “Kansas law, like most state laws, says that if you have any role in the decision making process for allocating public money, then you are a public body. A student fee committee must open its meetings.” However the attorney general’s opinion does provide a legal basis for the SGA to close the meeting. I went back to my legal expert with the document and asked for a general sense of what this all means:
I wouldn’t put a ton of weight into an AG letter opinion from 40 years ago...It does give them cover for now, with no court opinion altering it – but if they were sued today, a court would probably reconsider the question entirely. Old AG opinion (is) persuasive but not binding.
He also noted that it would be difficult for The Sunflower to recoup any legal fees if the staff sued because the SGA could claim it operated in good faith, given the opinion.
Two things are clear here, though: First, the optics are bad. Nobody ever closes themselves in a room and demands total privacy for something they’re sure is completely fine and that they’re totally proud of. This is why openness is a good idea and why Bardo’s request and the Senate’s subsequent actions make sense. If you’re willing to do this, do it where people can see it.
Second, if this four-page memo that was released a day after the original “Star Wars” opened is the only thing keeping the SGA from being forced to open all its meetings, somebody needs to take a legal whack at this thing. I don’t know exactly what life was like at K-State in 1977, but a lot has changed over the past 40 years. You can no longer smoke on airplanes, cars now come standard with airbags and we’re finally pretty sure that Elvis is dead. Also, here’s a picture of my dad from a 1977 family gathering:
Can we agree that a lot of things that probably made sense in 1977 now look really, really bad in retrospect? This single AG opinion looks nearly as god-awful as Dad’s homage to polyester. Hope the SPLC will get on it. (The case, not the outfit.)
Is this a case of “financial censorship” against The Sunflower? Hall and Hungate have said repeatedly that this isn’t a case of using the budget to slap around the paper because they didn’t like the coverage. However, the paper HAS covered the administration aggressively and has shined a light in some pretty sketchy corners of WSU. It also publicized a situation in which Hungate’s parents were painted in a criminal and racist light. When you couple those facts with the size of the cut and the lengths at which the committee went to keep things private, it’s hard to believe nobody had any ill will toward the paper. This is why an open and fair process is necessary to let people know whatever reasons the committee had for this cut. In addition, given the way in which the media is now watching WSU’s actions, the ideas of openness and transparency are essential.
The big take away? WSU knows people are watching and that matters. The Post’s line about “Democracy Dies in Darkness” applies here. If nobody outside of WSU had heard about this issue, it is likely the cuts would have rolled on through without a second thought. However, people ARE watching. They ARE commenting on the paper’s articles. They ARE sharing stories about this mess. The legal and media attention here makes a difference, not just in regard to the administration but also in regard to the staff members of The Sunflower. Knowing that they have some support makes a huge difference. So does the interest of state and national media outlets as well as the SPLC.
My experience being on the wrong end of a student government’s sense of purpose wasn’t all that great, but I remember hearing from a reporter who covered the meeting where the OSA proposed my ouster. SPLC had taken up my cause and pushed against this, leading one of the people who was leading the charge to express concern about “some special interest group out of Virginia” that brought several legal issues to light. According to the reporter, who told me this about a year after this happened, “he looked totally freaked out” when SPLC spoke up.
I know it’s a weekend, but keep looking at The Sunflower and the Eagle and follow these stories. The previous post has contact info for all the people involved so you can make your voice heard if you want.
If it can happen to The Sunflower, it can happen to any of us in the media.