Student Government Steals Campus Newspapers, Accuses Editor of Libel at SUNY Brockport

A full-blown free press war is being waged at the State University of New York in Brockport between the school’s campus newspaper and student government.

Early last month, the treasurer of the Brockport Student Government (BSG) took stacks of The Stylus that had yet to be distributed on campus in an attempt “to demonstrate that the paper was printing more copies than students were picking up.”  According to Stylus editor in chief William Matthias, “In the process, he committed theft and violated the First Amendment.”

Both the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) confirm that the student had no right to remove the copies, even if he claimed to only be “borrowing” them to prove a point.  Stylus faculty adviser Marsha Ducey recommended pursuing formal charges, but the editorial board declined.

SPLC attorney advocate Adam Goldstein: “The nicest thing you could say about the student government moving these papers into another area is that they went out of their way to offend the First Amendment, deprive advertisers of the value of their ad revenue and deprive the student body of the newspaper it paid for.”

FIRE’s Peter Bonilla has the best line, offering a question to think about the next time the BSG wants to show papers not being picked up: “[E]ver heard of a camera?”

The BSG did return the newspapers at editors’ request, but then offered an atrocious argument when accused of theft.  In a letter to Matthias drafted by outside legal counsel, the organization states, “[A]ny and all assets owned by the Stylus are in fact owned by BSG.  To the extent that an officer of BSG acquires or uses those assets for a purpose that is common to both the organization and BSG, it is simply using its own assets.”

Translation: BSG grants the Stylus official status as a student organization and provides it with some funding, so it can take whatever it wants from the newspaper at any time without punishment.  Bonilla calls it “one of the most breathtakingly bad justifications” for student newspaper theft he has seen since starting at FIRE.

The BSG next began an attempted assault on the newspaper’s budget for 2011-2012.  It has also temporarily frozen the newspaper’s current budget due to the staff’s late submission of a purchase order for pizza.

Separately, the BSG is accusing Matthias of libel for a column he wrote discussing the newspaper theft.  As a Stylus story notes, “The document [containing the libel charge] . . . demands that Matthias resign, print a retraction, take the article offline and take other action to ‘diminish the harm he has caused.'”

According to the SPLC’s Goldstein, one of the many problems with the libel charge is that it undercuts BSG’s claim of ownership over the Stylus.  Thus, in effect, they are accusing themselves of libeling . . . themselves.

Goldstein says it better: “If the Stylus is the student government [as the BSG claims in its newspaper theft defense], the argument is that the student government thought less of itself because it said something bad about itself. . . . What magnitude of schizophrenia is the student government suffering from?

Matthias stands by the column.  He has no plans to resign.  And as he told the SPLC, “[I]f BSG does not acknowledge the fact that they do not own those newspapers and cannot remove them as they wish, then I will continue to pursue this issue in a legal capacity.”

5 Responses to “Student Government Steals Campus Newspapers, Accuses Editor of Libel at SUNY Brockport”
  1. ravenchain says:

    What a ridiculous defense on behalf of these student government officials. I’m making an assumption here, but as is the case with most student papers, the funds that they receive from a student government body usually come from fees paid by students of the university. The student government officials themselves have no right to claim ownership over the papers. Those papers belong to every student at that university who has contributed fees to fund activities and programs like a student-run newspaper.
    Unless, of course, the student government at this school physically went out and raised all of the money it contributed to the paper. And I find that highly unlikely. Highly unlikely.

    • Kyle says:

      Technically, we did. And since the papers were 2 months old and destined for the recycling bin in two days after having sat out for the entire two months untouched…I mean, you can defend journalists if you’d like, but everyone other than the media knows journalists take snippits of information out of context to make normal stories extraordinary. I could tell you all day how the editor in chief was beyond aggressive and openly made females of the organization cry when he asked leading questions daily, but since he’s the editor of a tabloid, that’s OK, right?

  2. Dan says:

    Kyle- If you have a legitimate gripe about the newspaper’s editor, I suggest you contact the proper campus or legal authorities or media outlet. Otherwise, it’s hard not to see this as mean-spirited rumor-mongering. Your theft defense is half-hearted as well. You’re admitting to the crime, but then attempting to explain it by saying that “everyone” knows the media are sensationalists. Come on, buddy– some media are good, some are bad. Sort of like student governments.

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