Student government impedes First Amendment for paper’s criticisms

Jason Mann

Jason Mann

Can you name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment?

Go ahead, try. It’s okay if you can’t-most people can’t. I know I couldn’t before I began working as the editor of The Collegian. Give up? The correct answer is: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom to petition the government and freedom of the press.

Student leaders of the Student Government Association at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. seem to have forgotten about that fifth freedom. Student editors of The Montclarion discovered at the beginning of the spring semester that the SGA had frozen the newspaper’s funding and told its publisher not to print the paper. Without an online edition, The Montclarion would have been completely silenced.

On Jan. 30, after five hours of deliberation and pressure from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center, the SGA as a whole voted to temporarily restore funding to the newspaper. According to the Associated Press, the 30-day restoration is meant to give student leaders and lawyers for both groups a chance to settle the dispute.

What is all the fuss about? It depends on who you ask. The editors say that the SGA tried to censor them because the newspaper wrote articles beginning in November that criticized the SGA for holding closed-door meetings that may have violated state open-meetings law. The SGA student leaders say that the editors broke SGA by-laws that forbid a student group from hiring a lawyer to get them into the meetings rather than using the SGA lawyer.

This isn’t rocket science. The First Amendment clearly states “Congress shall make no law respecting ? abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Censorship is simply not an option, no matter what someone may write, especially in this instance. One of the functions of a newspaper is to serve as a government watchdog. By calling the SGA on a violation of state law, The Montclarion’s staff was only doing its job; if the staff had ignored the problem, the newspaper would have done a disservice to its readers and the community it serves.

Censoring a newspaper is the coward’s way to end an argument. Traditionally, this is the type of battle that is fought editorially, with each side writing a column arguing their piece and allowing the reader to decide who is right. I can’t speak for The Montclarion, who appears to have tried to settle the conflict this way, but I can say that this is how The Collegian would try to deal with a dispute. Hiring a lawyer is what a newspaper does when it is out of options.

All the Montclair State University SGA needs to do to realize it is wrong is just look at legal precedence. Few cases like this have gone before the courts, but the same conclusion was reached in every single one: government-even student government-cannot censor the presses.

There’s no shame in needing a cheat-sheet to remember all five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment, and if the SGA needs one, I’d be more than happy to type one up and send it to New Jersey. I wouldn’t even charge postage.