Student government leaders critical of the campus newspaper at California State University, Dominguez Hills, are moving to seize control of the publication amid outcries from editors that the maneuver could deal a blow to freedom of the press.
The editors were backed by a Washington-based legal expert on the student press who denounced the takeover attempt as unconstitutional in a heated confrontation with student leaders on the Carson campus Tuesday.
"I've never been treated so rudely in my life," said Marc Abrams, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a national organization that advises college journalists on the conduct and legal rights of campus publications.
He said student leaders advocating the takeover "showed up late for the meeting, pronounced it a sham and walked out before anything productive could be accomplished."
Louis Armmand, president of Dominguez Hills' Associated Students, said Abrams' intervention in the dispute had become a "charade" and that he intended to press ahead with new regulations governing the weekly campus publication, Bull's Eye.
The commission, Armmand said, would then be able to set up "standards" for the newspaper and ensure that its managers are held "accountable to the students that the paper is supposed to be serving." He said the proposed regulations are scheduled for a vote by the student Senate on Friday.
Under the current code--which student editors described as "vague and inadequate"--the Publications Commission, an arm of Associated Students, supervises the newspaper's operations but does not control its editorial policies. Commission members include four students, the editor in chief, the paper's adviser and representatives of various college departments.
The changes proposed by Armmand would create a new commission dominated by the student government, according to Nancy Harby, the paper's editor in chief. "They (the student leaders) want to take away our basic editorial functions and dictate our editorial policies," she said. "We feel they are laying the groundwork for future political control of the newspaper."
Critical of Armmand
The Bull's Eye and student leaders, Harby said, have long been "at each other's throats" over the paper's coverage of campus events. She said the paper ran several articles, cartoons and letters last year critical of Armmand's "rather dictatorial style" and, she suggested, the student leader may be partly motivated by a desire to punish the Bull's Eye.
Armmand, a 41-year-old law school graduate who said he has been active in civil rights and student governments at various schools since the late 1960s, said letters printed in the Bulls Eye "bordered on libel" and writers had used "questionable facts" in articles about him. But he denied that there was anything personal in the effort to take control of the paper.
"What's surprising is that the paper has been allowed to go on this way for so long," Armmand said. He said the newspaper has not provided "systematic coverage" of events and issues of interest to students and has neglected opportunities to bring in more advertising revenue.
Abrams, the student journalism advocate, said he was drawn into the Dominguez Hills ruckus when Bull's Eye editors outlined their problems at a weekend workshop in Anaheim.
He said Armmand was "playing lawyer," but did not have the expertise needed to interpret constitutional law and court decrees affecting the rights of student journalists.
The takeover, he said, would be illegal because it amounts to the use of "state power" to control a publication entitled to the protections of the First and Fourteenth amendments. Since the student government at Dominguez Hills disburses taxpayers' money to help finance the Bull's Eye, Abrams said, it is acting on behalf of the state.
About half of the publication's $28,000 annual budget is covered by public funds and the rest comes from student fees.
Abrams acknowledged that the Daily Bruin at UCLA, among other campus publications, is governed "in a structural sense" by a student board, but it would be "unthinkable" there for the board to try to control the paper's editorial policies.
He said he hoped that the student Senate at Dominguez Hills would adopt the modifications he had suggested to Armmand's plan. The revisions, he said, would safeguard press freedom while giving the student government more "advisory oversight" in the operations of the paper.
Abrams returned to Washington Wednesday night, but said he would arrange for a local legal counsel for the Bull's Eye if the takeover effort is successful.