Two years ago, I was editor of the Oregon Commentator, a biweekly libertarian/conservative magazine at the University of Oregon. The year was winding down when we learned that two students active in student government were planning to charge our publication with racial and sexual harassment.
Were we scared, cowed? No. We were ecstatic. We were never worried that we'd get in actual trouble, and the lawsuit would give us a golden opportunity to show that the campus was dominated by leftists intolerant of other opinions. We figured if we played our cards right, we could get press coverage from across the country, maybe even a Wall Street Journal editorial. The ACLU would rush to our defense, and conservative foundations would shower us with money for our courageous stand.
Now, we didn't want the sensible lefties and liberals to stop the two students from moving forward, so we kept quiet. But we did have T-shirts printed up with the First Amendment on the back in anticipation.
Alas, the lawsuit never materialized, and our dreams of fame and fortune died with it. All we had were some cool Commentator T-shirts. But not all campus magazines are so unfortunate. We were relying on two fringe characters acting on their own. At Northwestern University, the whole student government piled on.
At Northwestern, student organizations distribute fliers and publications door-to-door in the dormitories. This past April, the Student Senate passed a measure ostensibly designed to address litter problems in the dorms. The rule was neutrally worded: Any publication that comes out at least three times a school year would be required to pick up unwanted copies within 24 hours and must not deliver to the doors of residents who state in writing that they do not want that publication. The rule, in effect, exempted fliers and doorknob notices. In fact, the only organization affected by the new restrictions was the Northwestern Chronicle, a conservative student newspaper published weekly during the school year. Naturally, the Chronicle cried foul.
"We objected because it was a punitive piece of legislation aimed specifically at us," says Chronicle Editor Ron Witteles. "This shows that campuses today are still where freedom of speech and freedom of dissemination of views aren't welcome."
Door-to-door delivery is a critical part of the conservative weekly's success. Getting 6,000 copies practically into students' hands significantly increases readership, and gives the Chronicle a much-needed advertising edge over The Daily Northwestern, which only distributes stacks of copies in the dorm lobbies. Advertising makes up roughly $17,000 of the Chronicle's $22,000 annual budget, the rest coming from grants, subscriptions, and small donations. The Chronicle staff also places stacks of their paper in the dorm lobbies, but Witteles says those are often stolen, a frequent problem for conservative papers. Delivering door-to-door cuts down on theft. Stealing one paper at a time still happens, but it's harder.
In the past the Chronicle was delivered only to those who wanted the paper, but Witteles says that practice was discontinued because students who got the paper would sometimes be harassed and decide it wasn't worth the hassle.
Witteles says litter is just the latest excuse for blocking or interfering with Chronicle distribution. Previously, political opponents have said that delivering the Chronicle door-to-door creates a fire hazard. They've even said that students could slip on copies of the Chronicle, creating potential liability problems. "They're trying to find some way of pretending that it's some non-viewpoint-related regulation and it's accidental that it only affects the Chronicle, but that strains credulity," says Daniel D. Polsby, a Northwestern law professor.
The Chronicle covers sports, entertainment, and nonpolitical campus events, but it makes no bones about its conservative content. It began publishing in May 1992 and is part of the Collegiate Network, an association of 52 libertarian and conservative college newspapers. Ideologically, the Chronicle is more Republican than many of its freewheeling sister papers: Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.) are honorary advisers. "These guys are mainline Republican types, not Montana militia folks," says Polsby, an occasional REASON contributor.
But the Chronicle has made enemies, as its editor freely admits. "We've been critical of many a student group over the past couple of years," Witteles says. "Some of them may hold some resentment against us."
When the black student union brought Maya Angelou to campus, the Chronicle reported that she had been voted one of the worst professors at Wake Forest University. When Asian Americans conducted an all-day hunger strike to demand an Asian-American Studies program, Chronicle staff set up next to them and handed out free pizza to passing students.
It's not surprising that political opponents would go after the Chronicle. What is surprising about the Student Senate's action is that it had already been tried before, and that attempt failed. In November 1994, the two largest dorms banned the Chronicle from delivering door-to-door, also using neutral-sounding language that affected only the conservative weekly. The Chronicle appealed to the University Hearings and Appeals System. Polsby testified on behalf of the Chronicle as a constitutional expert. Northwestern is a private university, but the school uses the Constitution as its standard. Essentially, the university must act as if it were a public institution, and the dorm hallways public areas. "The university is obliged to follow their own rules," says Polsby, "and the rules say follow the Constitution."
The six-student, three-faculty member UHAS Appeals Board agreed, and overturned the dorm ban in February 1995. So when the Senate considered restrictions this year, Chronicle staffers tried convincing student senators that the issue had already been decided and they were bound to fail. "We warned them beforehand that it was just going to make them look extremely stupid and they were going to lose," says Witteles.
But the measure passed the Senate on April 17, and the Chronicle continued to distribute to the dorms. The Associated Student Government Executive Committee responded by sanctioning the paper on May 7, revoking the Chronicle's right to reserve rooms for meetings, use the student government copy machine, or use computers set aside for student groups.
The Chronicle wasn't particularly concerned. In fact, the staff wore the student government's official disapproval as a badge of honor. The May 10 issue front-page headline was "Guilty as Charged." Using language from the Executive Committee's ruling, the Chronicle's motto under the masthead was changed to "Making an Unsatisfactory Contribution to the Northwestern Community." Inside a recruiting ad reads, "'The first student group sanctioned in recorded ASG history.' How's that for a resumé booster?"
The Chronicle appealed the Senate restrictions and the Executive Committee's subsequent sanctions to the UHAS again. The May 30 meeting was almost anticlimactic. Representatives for the student government couldn't point to serious litter complaints from students or janitorial staff, which made it fairly obvious that litter wasn't the issue. The ASG representatives must have known what was coming, because they left before the board announced their decision. Tom Radcliffe, a third-year law student representing the Chronicle, won a decisive victory. Not only did the Appeals Board strike down the restrictions on distribution and the sanctions that followed, but any future complaints against the Chronicle would go directly to the board for review first.
"They said if any governmental body tries to restrict the distribution of the Chronicle in the future, before it can even be considered, the Appeals Board will look it over to see if it's too close to what they've already ruled on," Witteles says. "We were rather pleased with the outcome."
The Chronicle should be rather pleased with the entire affair. Before the Senate took action, 1995-96 had been a noncontroversial year, according to Witteles. Now the Chronicle is getting all the benefits of martyrdom, with virtually none of the painful consequences. Conservative college papers have two primary goals: spread the conservative gospel to the unwashed masses corrupted by leftists and liberals, and expose the left as evil, intolerant, and stupid. Mission accomplished on both counts. Readership has gone up dramatically, according to staff. And the student government's antics were covered by the campus media and beyond. The Daily covered the story closely for weeks. And the Chicago Tribune ran three stories on the controversy, including a front-page article. "Overall the media coverage has been very positive," Witteles says.
As an organization, the Chronicle staff is more united than ever. "Anytime you have an us-versus-them situation it's going to bring you closer together. With the new staff members especially, it was like David vs. Goliath, the little conservative paper against the entire student government," says the editor.
In the last couple of years, a number of leftists and liberals have argued that political correctness is a myth created by conservatives. They maintain that instances of actual censorship and ideological conformity are few and far between. Events like those at Northwestern show that it's not for a lack of trying. College campuses are dominated by would-be totalitarians who would love to stamp out dissenting opinions–they're just incompetent, at least at the student level.
But these events serve a useful purpose. They remind people that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are still threatened. And they remind people, and conservatives in particular, why protecting these rights is so important, which is always good.
For Witteles, he has fought his last battle in the campus culture wars. He's graduating and heading to medical school, confident that the Chronicle is safe for the near future. "I don't think they'll mess with us again," Witteles says.
But he can always hope.
Ed Carson (ELCarson@aol.com) is a staff reporter for REASON.