HAMDEN — In a move that has some First Amendment experts scratching their heads, Quinnipiac University administrators have threatened to ban the school’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists from campus for its support of an independent online student newspaper, the News has learned.
In a letter sent Monday to SPJ President Jaclyn Hirsch — who is also managing editor of the online paper, the Quad News — Quinnipiac Student Center Director Daniel W. Brown issued an “official warning” to Hirsch. The SPJ chapter, the letter said, will lose its “recognition status” if interaction with the Quad News persists.
The Quad News is no ordinary independent student publication. Formed this year after Quinnipiac administrators assumed tight editorial control over the main student newspaper on campus, the Quinnipiac Chronicle, its editorial board consists mainly of one-time editors of that newspaper, many of whom are disgruntled with treatment of the Quinnipiac student press by university officials.
That frustration is unlikely to subside anytime soon. An on-campus survey of about 30 Quinnipiac students suggest that most feel administrators went too far in threatening to ban an organization for supporting a well-intentioned endeavor, and in an interview, the vice president of the Poynter Institute likened the situation to something he would see only in an authoritarian state.
The university, for its part, has so far declined to provide an explanation. Calls and e-mails to administrators were not returned, except for a one-sentence statement from Lynn Bushnell, the vice president for public affairs e-mailed by John Morgan, the associate vice president for public relations.
“The letter,” she wrote, “speaks for itself.”
And when this reporter sought comment in person Tuesday afternoon, he was denied access to central campus locations such as the student center. The Qunnipiac University Public Affairs Department, one guard said, ordered that the News not be allowed inside.
“Lynn Bushnell, John Morgan. They’re the same,” the guard of the New Road entrance said. “You know there’s a certain system around here.”
Despite Bushnell’s past statements to the news that Quinnipiac administrators “encourage” students to “look for opportunities” to practice journalism, the letter suggests just the opposite, said 10 national and local journalism experts interviewed Tuesday.
“We would be very concerned about a university trying to use the status of a student organization as SPJ as a coercive technique to punish expression that they disagre with,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Arlington, Va., national organization Student Press Law Center.
When forwarded the letter by the News, SPJ Vice President for Campus Chapter Affairs Neil Ralston said he will contact the university SPJ chapter and student journalism supporters near Quinnipiac to help them plan their next steps.
Experts said while, in general, heavy-handedness from the administration is not uncommon, this particular case is entirely unprecedented.
“I have not heard of any case in which a chapter of SPJ was threatened,” said Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a school for journalism located in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“It is like something out of an authoritarian government, something I would expect to see in Singapore, not in Connecticut.”
For the most part, the 30 students interviewed on Quinnipiac’s campus Tuesday afternoon seemed to agree.
“It sounds like typical Quinnipiac,” said John, a junior history major, who did not give his last name. “They want to dress everything up and put a bow on it. Quinnipiac is all about appearance.”
“That’s absurd. The students have the right to put out whatever they want to write,” agreed freshman biology major Renn Kinnear. “It’s their duty as journalists.”
But a few students argued that, at the end of the day, the administration has control over what happens on campus — and this case is no different.
“It kind of made sense,” first-year biology graduate student Jared Pasaoa said. “They went behind the administration. It was probably fine before, when they were not affiliated with anything. Now that they are affiliated with that other group, the school has to watch them.”
Although administrators remained mum yesterday, students were not afraid to express outrage at the university’s actions — even the ones that do not read the Quad News.
Of those 30 students interviewed, in fact, only two had heard of the new online paper. All said they knew of the Chronicle, though, even if they did not read it regularly.
Quad News editor in chief Jason Braff, who was formerly a Chronicle editor, said the paper is doing just fine — one day last week, the site got 2,000 hits, more than any single day of hits in the Chronicle’s site’s history.
But, editors said, featuring new stories weekly in addition to breaking news regularly requires more writers.
Recruitment, though, has gotten them in trouble with administrators.
On Monday, Brown confronted Hirsch about the support SPJ was giving the staff of the online paper. The letter which came shortly afterward, was an ultimatum.
“The Quad News is not a recognized student organization,” Brown wrote.
The letter came after an incident at last Wednesday’s extracurricular fair and a string of run-ins that followed it.
Because it is not recognized as a student organization — it is neither “unique from currently recognized student groups” nor in possession of a faculty adviser, both requirements according to Quinnipiac’s student handbook — and did not have a table of its own, the Quad News recruited writers from the SPJ table, three editors, including Braff, said.
Brown, according to these editors, approached the editor at the table and asked the editor to remove all Quad News recruitment materials.
The editor agreed, but stayed at the table. In subsequent days, according to editors, the Quad News also used a room reserved under SPJ’s name for meetings and made presentations in classrooms to talk about the paper and present flyers, which administrators took issue with, as well.
Finally, in what Brown called a “miscommunication” between him and his staff, student-center staff removed all the Quad News’ advertisements off the walls, even though they had previously been given permission to post them, the editors said.
Brown did not return requests for comment left on his office and home voicemails Tuesday.
Hirsch declined to comment Tuesday, saying she needed more time to evaluate the situation.
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