Virginia Tech May Cut Collegiate Times Funding Due to Paper’s Online Comments Policy (?!)

Administrators at Virginia Tech are threatening to cut the funding of The Collegiate Times student newspaper and other campus media due to their distaste for the paper’s allowance of anonymous comments following stories posted online.

As the Roanoke Times reports, the university’s Commission on Student Affairs is declaring that the paper’s failure to oversee and remove troublesome anonymous comments from its Web site violates the school’s “principles of community.” Part of the Roanoke Times piece: “In a letter dated Feb. 8, officials laid out a plan to cut university funding to the paper, the yearbook and other publications . . . and ban student organizations from using university funds to buy advertising in the CT, a move that could shut down the paper. Officials have asked the newspaper to disallow anonymous comments on stories at its Web site, saying that staff, students and some faculty had objected to comments they characterized as racist or otherwise offensive.”

A snippet from the commission’s letter to the parent organization of the Collegiate Times (scroll to page four): “Last semester . . . the Commission became aware of discontent among students, faculty, staff, administrators, and others regarding the online commenting system through the Collegiate Times. The consensus of the Commission has been that the commenting system is irresponsible and inappropriate because it lacks accountability . . . The Commission has now decided to take action [basically not renewing a contract that provides financial assistance to the paper].”

In a letter responding to this missive, the paper’s parent company reminded the commission of the CT’s editorial independence and outlined the legal tenuousness of so-called “principles of community” on college campuses. It also confirmed that CT staffers had conducted an industry-wide review of online commenting practices after the commission first voiced its concerns.  “But this is no longer a dialogue,” the letter stated, “it is coercion.” On behalf of VT student media, the company has promised a legal fight if the funding threat is carried out.

On top of the letter, FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has also released a rebuke of the school’s threats, noting: “Virginia Tech is acting because of content-based concerns, which is plainly unconstitutional. Virginia Tech, after all, is a public university bound by the First Amendment, although it seems that Virginia Tech has little interest in acknowledging this fact.  And . . . anonymous speech has a very important place in our democracy, a place it has had since the founding of our nation. A statement such as the ‘Principles of Community’ may not be given binding force against free expression without violating the First Amendment . . . Woe be to Virginia Tech.”

My take: The commission is being irresponsible, inappropriate, irrational even. What does it possibly hope to achieve in a positive sense?  It must know the paper is not going to back down, meaning the school now comes across as the bully in an ugly PR fight.  Or worse yet, it will be responsible for effectively shutting down student VT student media.  There is nothing wrong with the commission communicating its concerns and encouraging the Collegiate Times to monitor and when warranted delete libelous or especially nasty online feedback.  But to dangle a major funding cut over anonymous online story comments, a generally accepted practice within Journalism 3.0 and the Web world?  That is censorship, and should not be accepted without a fight. Signed, Dan Reimold

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  1. […] of anonymous comments on its website, as noted by the Society of Professional Journalists and College Media Matters. The Daily Pennsylvanian is blogging about it as well, and Virginia Tech’s behavior has also […]

  2. […] allowance of anonymous online comments is far from over.  (Read past posts on this story here and here.)  The tactics now in play- an increasingly dubious blame game, pulled advertising, and, […]

  3. […] Virginia Tech May Cut Collegiate Times Funding Due to Paper’s Online Comments Policy (?!) &laq… […]