Union Weekly’s Funding Threatened at Cal State Long Beach After Pow Wow Article

A pair of student groups at California State University, Long Beach, are pressuring the student senate to stop funding The Union Weekly.  The de-funding demand comes roughly a month after the alternative campus newspaper published a critique of an American Indian campus event that was “construed by many as an assault” on Native American culture.  The student groups are also circulating a petition calling for the firing of Union Weekly editor in chief Kevin O’Brien.

In the article that sparked the controversy, headlined “Pow Wow Wow Yippee Yo Yippy Yay,” Union Weekly campus editor Noah Kelly espoused an “unflattering view” toward a campus Pow Wow.  He equated the annual cultural event with a “large, Native American themed flea market.” He specifically mocked the food– at one point comparing frybread to “a Mexican pizza from Taco Bell, but sh*ttier”– and referred to a traditional dance that involved spectators throwing money to performers as “disingenuous and cheap.”

Critics quickly pounced on the piece, declaring it “racist and culturally insensitive.” According to The Daily 49er, the main CSULB student newspaper, concerns were even expressed that the article made the entire university “look bad to the American Indian community.”

Beginning last week, students affiliated with the school’s American Indian Student Council and a group known as Justice and Gender Education staged a two-pronged counterattack.  They started an online petition against the newspaper that has secured more than 100 signatures so far and separately organized an anti-Union campus rally.

The rally and petition, combined, are aimed at convincing the CSULB student senate to take three actions: 1) Lessen or fully cut the $35,000 funding it provides the Union Weekly from student fees. 2) Remove O’Brien as editor in chief, even though his leadership stint is already scheduled to end next month.  And 3) Enact changes in the Union Weekly‘s news production process, including requiring greater adviser oversight of potentially controversial pieces.

As one student who performed at the Pow Wow told Kelly and O’Brien at a senate session held after the rally last week, “Shame on you!  Whoever your parents were and your ancestors were, you were not taught right.”  The same student told the senate, “Silence implies compliance.  Funding says it’s OK.”

The senate will consider funding issues in the next few weeks during its budget planning for the next academic year.  The senate president: “You never know what the sentiments of the senate are going to sway toward, but I think at the end of the day, First Amendment rights do take last-standing precedent for publications.”

During the senate session, Kelly again apologized for the piece, stating, “Everything that I learned in my class about writing, timeliness, professionalism are put to the test every week at the Union Weekly.  I regrettably failed that test when I haphazardly created the Pow Wow article.”

In a pair of staff editorials, the Daily 49er has criticized the student groups’ de-funding effort as a free press face-slap.  As the most recent editorial noted, “[T]he Daily 49er staff agrees that the Union should continue to be funded by [the student senate]. . . . While it is entirely understandable for the AISC to oppose funding for a paper that has offended their culture, it’s important that student papers practice their First Amendment rights as well.  The article was indeed insulting, and Kelly should have taken his fellow students into consideration, but— ultimately— an opinion is nothing more than an opinion.  In addition, asking for staff oversight for a student publication is entirely unecessary. In the college newspaper world, having an advisor read articles before publication is considered a form of prior restraint.”

In “A Letter Like Nothing Else” to readers in the Union‘s latest issue, O’Brien calls the petition calling for his ouster “total BS (bullshit).”  He also wrote about the senate session in which protestors spoke: “Some screamed, some stared, some simply made their opinion known. . . . Noah and I were disparaged, as was the Union Weekly.  There were calls for his firing, my ousting, and the removal of all or some funding for the Union Weekly.  As far as I am concerned none of that is going to happen.  After the rally, Noah, perhaps seeking absolution and definitely exhibiting what huge balls he has, stepped into a circle of protestors and spoke with them.  From what he told me they were pretty brutal. . . . F*ck this noise.”

A few pages after O’Brien’s letter, a commentary by a Union contributor similarly criticized the de-funding push, citing the publication’s reputation as a “democratic space . . . where students’ voices can be heard.”  The writer specifically argued that there is value in an outlet that allows unpopular, even ignorant opinions to be published.

As he wrote, “Had the Union ceased to exist, there would be a Noah [Kelly] who would have continued to think the way he thought about American indigenenous cultures. Furthermore, who is to say that there were not others who read Noah’s article and ignorantly agreed with him?  It can be concluded that others shared Noah’s views on the Pow Wow, and it’s because of the Union that the discussion on what truly is American indigenous culture took place, ultimately putting ignorance to rest.”

Comments are closed.