WILMINGTON — After UNCW’s student-run newspaper, The Seahawk, tweeted a paid political advertisement in the weeks before the November election, at least one member of the university’s board of trustees wasn’t pleased.
While The Seahawk is operated by students, it is funded primarily by student fees. Every full-time undergraduate at UNCW pays $2,173 per year in fees; $12.50 per person goes toward student media, which includes The Seahawk as well as other campus publications like TealTV and Hawkstream Radio. Supplemental funding comes from advertising sales and sponsorships.
“I can’t remember another time in my experience where the board has ever stepped in like that,” said Brenna Flanagan, editor-in-chief of The Seahawk.
The Seahawk posted sponsored content, paid for by the Progressive Caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party, at least twice in October.
On Oct. 14, the newspaper’s account tweeted: “Vote Democratic for better healthcare access.”
And on Oct. 20: “Vote Democratic to protect our environment and fight climate change.”
Both posts were tagged with “#sponsored,” indicating the messages were advertisements and not editorial content.
Public universities are largely barred from meddling in the content of their student-run publications. According to the Student Press Law Center, “Courts have been consistent in ruling that at the public colleges and universities, school officials, including student government officers, may not exercise the power of a private publisher over student publications simply because they provide financial support.”
On its website, UNCW states the same: “The university, including all faculty, staff and advisers, has no prior knowledge of the students’ content and exerts absolutely no prior review of content before publication.”
“Student publications at UNCW work independently from the university and have all the rights and responsibilities of off-campus professional publications,” the website notes.
In this situation, there was no attempt to make preemptive alterations to The Seahawk’s content. Instead, Dennis Burgard, a member of the board of trustees, retroactively took issue with the tweets and expected the university to answer for the posts.
Burgard has been on the UNCW Board of Trustees since 2013. Like at other universities, the board collaborates with the chancellor to define the school’s values and priorities, develop goals and approve various initiatives. Burgard graduated from UNCW in 1988 and began working in real estate that same year. He lives in Jacksonville.
“I would like a response from the university related to a twitter post from the Seahawk encouraging everyone to vote Democratic,” Burgard sent in an email to his fellow board members and other university leaders on Oct. 14.
“Is this newspaper funded by student fees? Students who may vote Republican?” he wrote.
Mark Lanier, the secretary to the board, shortly thereafter indicated he had spoken with interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Brian Victor, and included a written response from Victor to Burgard.
“Just talked with [Dean of Students] Mike Walker and with the Advisor of The Seahawk,” the email stated. “The convention is the use of the “#sponsored,” which is Twitter’s indicator that it is a paid ad. Nonetheless, I noted that it had the appearance of political activity with state resources and thus we needed to be more clear.”
Burgard, seemingly not satisfied with the answer, responded: “Someone who works for the Seahawk did in fact use the Seahawk twitter account to promote the Democrat party. It makes no difference if this tweet was created by someone else as an ad.”
After the conversation between university leaders and the advisor to The Seahawk regarding the tweets, the posts were amended to say, “Paid for by @ncdpprogcaucus,” making it more clear the posts were sponsored content.
“It sounds like the board of trustees is in desperate need of a First Amendment refresher course,” said Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center. “Going after the student newspaper for an advertisement that the student editor or the student staff chose to run was blatantly unconstitutional.”
Walker, the dean of students, said The Seahawk is permitted to engage in political advertising, “as long as it complies with N.C. law and internal policies of The Seahawk.”
“UNCW responded to an inquiry from a member of our Board after I confirmed via The Seahawk that a Tweet in question was in fact a paid advertisement and not an editorial opinion of The Seahawk,” Walker wrote in an email to Port City Daily. “The inquiry was satisfactorily closed at that point.”
Flanagan, the editor, said she and her staff made the adjustments to the tweets and didn’t hear anything from the university after that.
“You know, it wasn’t surprising, to be honest, that’s kind of something that boards or administrators at any university will do from time to time,” Flanagan said. “Just to avoid further conflict and confrontations, we decided to make those small changes so they wouldn’t have anything else to complain about.”
Across the country, there have been high-profile instances of student newspaper advisers being fired and papers losing funding after scuffles between administration and the editorial staff.
At Fairmont State University in 2015, the student paper’s faculty adviser was removed after the paper, The Columns, reported a story about toxic mold in campus housing.
Also in 2015, The Koala, a satirical student paper at the University of California San Diego, published an article entitled, “UCSD Unveils New Dangerous Space on Campus.” The article mocked the concept of “safe spaces” and included multiple racial slurs. The student government defunded the publication, sparking a first amendment lawsuit. In 2019, the Court of Appeals sided with The Koala, overturning the ruling of a lower court that had thrown out the initial lawsuit.
The Supreme Court has never ruled on a case specifically involving student-run college newspapers.
Hiestand said that when talking about student publications at public universities, “public school officials have to have a hands-off attitude.”
“They are government officials,” he added. “And the First Amendment clearly limits their ability to get involved with making content decisions on behalf of student editors.”
Burgard declined an interview request. When reached by phone he said, “I’m not interested in making any comments to Port City Daily.”
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