August 16, 2012

Some of the student journalists who walked out on the University of Georgia student newspaper The Red & Black on Wednesday will return for a meeting Thursday afternoon, publisher Harry Montevideo said in a phone interview. He wasn’t sure which students would attend.

The students quit after the volunteer board for the paper, which operates independently from the university, changed Ed Morales’ position from editorial adviser to editorial director. Morales is an employee of the paper, not a student at Georgia. Editor-in-Chief Polina Marinova resigned, saying in a blog post that students would no longer have final approval of content in the paper.

That’s not the case, Montevideo said. From his point of view, the paper’s board is trying to professionalize an existing relationship. “There has been prior review in the past,” he said. “We’ve had an editorial adviser on staff since the ’80s.”

That may prove to be an important point: The Student Press Law Center says the “First Amendment drastically limits” a school’s ability to to censor a student paper, and prior review is one activity courts have prohibited.

But The Red & Black is separate from the university, run by an independent board, and “virtually everybody” who works on the paper is paid, Montevideo said. SPLC attorney Adam Goldstein told me via email that to avoid a First Amendment issue, “the board and its decision-making have to be genuinely independent; it’s not merely enough that they be legally separate.”

The students who walked out posted a draft of a memo about editorial standards. Montevideo said the board wrote it, and it was a rough draft. “It was certainly not meant for publication,” he said. “It was an internal communication between our board and our editorial director.”

According to the paper’s 2011 IRS form 990, three of its 15 board members are formally affiliated with the university. One is Kent Middleton, the head of the school’s journalism department. “A university doesn’t avoid a First Amendment problem by giving itself seats on a board and having its employees on that board censor, because at the end of the day, those employees hold the seats due to their government-related jobs and their actions are still attributable to the government,” Goldstein wrote.

“I hate to say it, but from my viewpoint it was an overreaction,” Montevideo said about Wednesday’s brouhaha, “and our best attempts at creating discussion and dialogue around it were met with emotional responses.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
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