A Different Sort of Speech Suppression

Student journalists at Transylvania University are up in arms after administrators took away their pay.

May 15, 2019

In the past three years, the student newspaper at Transylvania University, The Rambler, has transformed. It nixed the print edition and went entirely digital. With a new adviser at the helm, a professional journalist, the young reporters began writing about more complex topics, such as competitive Kentucky congressional and mayoral races. The Rambler also started giving its writers and editors small stipends, a move that seemed to stem the end-of-the-semester turnover, when students were focused on exams and not reporting for the campus paper.

So when administrators told Tom Martin, host of a local NPR show and The Rambler’s adviser, that they were no longer paying the stipends (and Martin’s salary) in the next academic year, the student journalists were shocked. Officials determined during the university’s budget review that “resources weren’t being used efficiently,” said Megan Moloney, a Transylvania spokeswoman.

The university is maintaining the publication’s $30,000 budget, about 85 percent of which went to paying Martin and the student journalists, but it’s unclear how that money will be spent now. (Martin asserts that his salary is not part of The Rambler's budget; the university disagrees.) Many student newspapers do pay their staff, though some do not, and at some only the editors are compensated, usually minimally.

The Rambler's editors are convinced the move was intended to halt their progress. Tristan Reynolds, the editor in chief, said that before Martin’s tenure and the paychecks for staffers, the paper’s reporting was shoddy and laden with errors.

“The staff’s confusion and concern deepened when the university claimed that our funds would be ‘reallocated,’ and we were not provided any information on what that decision would mean for The Rambler's ability to maintain its quality of work,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds and Martin said that in the past couple of years, the newspaper's staffers have started to write about hot-button issues, something they had never attempted before, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal sex antidiscrimination law, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The saga with The Rambler began this month after Martin was informed the stipends would be eliminated. He was also told that he would be removed as the newspaper’s adviser. Martin was hired by a previous dean who has since left the university, and administrators elected not to renew his appointment. Martin did not have a contract, Moloney said.

After the student reporters learned of the change, they shut down The Rambler in protest, saying they had essentially been “defunded.” The website was wiped clean and the students linked to a statement and petition asking for the stipends back and for assurances from administrators -- in writing -- that the newspaper would be editorially independent. While the university, a private institution, does fund The Rambler, administrators do not control its operations or review stories prior to publication, Moloney said.

Moloney said regardless of the strike, the university will continue to pay the stipends, which range from $25 to $75 for editors, depending on their position, and $10 per article for the writers, for the rest of the academic year.

The Rambler website went back online on Monday afternoon to report the news of Seamus Carey, the Transylvania president, stepping down this summer. He will take over the presidency at Iona College in New York.

In a statement to The Lexington-Herald Leader, Tom Eblen, president of the Society of Professional Journalists' Bluegrass chapter, said that the decision to stop compensating the Rambler staff appeared to be a "blatant attempt to silence and control student voices."

“President Seamus Carey and his leadership team should be standing up for the liberal arts values of a free press, good journalism and media literacy, not undermining them, especially at this critical time in our nation’s history," Eblen said in his statement. "If this decision is not reversed, it will send a powerful message about Transylvania to students, potential students and the nation."

Martin began his work at the paper in September 2016, and the university used the savings from no longer printing The Rambler to pay him and the staff. Martin said he had researched comparable institutions and found that many of them had shifted their college papers online and paid their staff.

Previously, students worked for the paper for academic credit, though Transylvania, a liberal arts college in Kentucky, doesn’t have a full journalism program.

Martin said that when he met with administrators, he expected to be providing them with an update of “all the exciting things” planned for the next year.

Instead, he was blindsided.

Since the news, Rambler staffers have met with administrators, but they said they wouldn’t be told how their budget was being used until a new dean was hired.

Moloney said that the university wanted to meet with students and work with them, but would not do so until after a new dean took office, which is expected to happen by the next academic year She did not say why officials believed the money was being used inefficiently, but floated the possibility of students attending journalism conferences or bringing in experts to speak with the reporters.

The university expected that the students would develop a plan for how their budget would be used. Martin said he had never heard about that idea but thought it was a poor one.

“It’s ill advised,” Martin said. “There’s churn in student newspaper. The staff changes semester to semester, year to year.”

Moloney, who said she would welcome being considered as the new adviser but felt it may be a conflict of interest, stressed that the university still supported The Rambler.

“We have worked with them since this all became an issue, and let the students and our community know, this is not a situation where we're trying to limit their ability to publish,” she said.

Conservative students have also recently accused Transylvania of stepping on free expression. The university’s chapter members of Young Americans for Freedom said administrators prevented them from setting up a table on the campus where they were gauging support for free speech initiatives, specifically adoption of the Chicago principles, a set of standards around free expression developed at the University of Chicago.

YAF pointed out that the day before, the Young Democratic Socialists of America had tabled in the same location at the same time without being stopped, however, Moloney said that group did so without permission of the university. An administrator happened to walk by YAF’s table and asked if group members had approval to be there, which they did not, Moloney said.

Students who want to table need to apply to use space in Alumni Plaza, the center of campus, and both student organizations set up shop away from the designated area, Moloney said. The Young Democratic Socialists of America were unaware of this requirement, she said.

Because Transylvania has limited such activities to just Alumni Plaza, it is enforcing a “free speech zone,” a policy which has become a major target of court challenges and likely will disappear in the next several years, experts told Inside Higher Ed.

Moloney said this summer the university will be reviewing its policies, including those around free expression.


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