A Question of Sex, Censorship, and ‘Funding’ at Towson

Late last month, a staffer in the President’s Office at Towson University sought a correction to my college media censorship year-in-review post.  Marina Cooper, an assistant to the president who handles external relations and communications, objected to the use of the word “funding” in my description of the Towson-Towerlight sex column controversy.

As I previously wrote, “Late last September, Towson University president Robert Caret publicly condemned a sex column published in The Towerlight student newspaper. He threatened to pull needed university funding from the paper if the column continued running, a stance from which he eventually backed down. Critics called Caret’s attack posturing that did nothing but inflame tensions and put Towson in the spotlight as a school boasting leaders who do not believe in editorial freedom.”

A portion of Cooper’s response, posted as a public comment: “Dan, your synopsis of the Towson story is not accurate. Our student newspaper is an independent publication- and is not funded by the university. The president informed the newspaper editor that university ADVERTISING would discontinue if the column continued running– a fair decision for any business or organization.”

Since it first appeared on CMM, Cooper’s criticism has intrigued me.  It is certainly respectful and well within her rights to write.  I just find it cringe-inducing, and an embodiment of why so many schools are so clueless when it comes to handling student press controversies– especially those related to s-e-x.

To be clear, I stand by my description 110 percent.  Funding is defined as “financial resources provided to make some project possible.”   The Towson administration is no doubt quite aware that its *heavy* advertising investment in the Towerlight (accounting for 40 percent of its total ad revenue) provides the funding needed for the paper to remain in existence.  Pulling that money from the paper would be akin to a death sentence or at the very least a *gigantic* body blow from which it may have taken years and mega-restructuring to recover.

So right away, I’m dumbstruck by Cooper’s comment.  The school’s potential killing of its own student paper– independent or not– is a “fair decision”??

In addition, labeling the money mere ADVERTISING and equating the school in this instance to “any business or organization” reeks of PR baloney.  It is the type of attempted misdirection learned in crisis management 101.

Sure, on a literal level, the school, like every advertiser, can balk at media content and stop advertising.  But in reality, even Snooki from “Jersey Shore” would not buy that ‘Aww, shucks, we’re just like any other advertiser’ excuse.  The school is merely an advertiser in some sense, yes.  But in a larger sense it has proactively decided to be much, much more.

What is Towson to the Towerlight? Towson is the institutional body with which the paper is aligned.  Towson is at the core of the paper’s coverage.  Towson is what provides the paper with a presence, literally granting it on-campus distribution privileges and a lease agreement allowing it newsroom space. Towson is arguably its greatest promoter, bragging about it on the school’s website and undoubtedly during recruiting speeches and campus tours. And Towson is occasionally its educational vehicle– providing related classes for student staffers and more informal advice.  As Caret himself wrote in his initial letter to the editor expressing his distaste for the sex column, “As your President I stand in a relationship to you that has a teaching obligation as one component.”

But, wait, no he doesn’t- not according to his assistant for external relations and communications.  In Cooper’s view, Caret stands in a relationship to the paper as the head of a “business or organization” that chooses whether or not to advertise.  If that is the way the school wants it, fine.  Then own it.  But in the meantime, stop trying to choose the best identity that fits at any given moment.

This is what schools almost ALWAYS do with their campus media.  In good times, they love them, take credit for their success, and talk about their ties to the school.  In tough times, they disavow any relationship at all.  It’s the student press equivalent of the shell game.

So what do you call the combination of a school president’s personal disgust over student newspaper content with a school’s threat of a massive ad drop?  I do not call it “a fair decision.”  I call it a *highly* visible sign that the school is not supporting the idea of a free student press on its campus.  I call it a shameful action for the school to even threaten, one that has nothing to do with quibbles over the meaning of funding vs. advertising.

But mostly, I call it censorship, plain and simple.  And it has to stop.

3 Responses to “A Question of Sex, Censorship, and ‘Funding’ at Towson”
  1. Andrew Ciofalo says:

    Often a school’s advertising buys it a cozy relationship with campus media. When they pull the plug they risk unleashing jnvestigative journalism that will be much more painful.

  2. It may not be technically fair but the school isn’t obligated to support the paper if it doesn’t agree with the content that is published. In the real world, questionable tv shows or tv spectacles can also result in advertisers pulling millions of dollars of advertising money.

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