A group of activists at Wesleyan University want the school's student government to defund the campus newspaper for publishing a controversial op-ed that criticized the Black Lives Matter movement.
At least 172 students, staff and recent alumni signed a petition asking that the Wesleyan Argus lose all funding until it meets a number of demands. Signatories pledged to boycott the Argus because it does not "provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future."
The Sept. 14 op-ed in question was written by Bryan Stascavage, a 30-year-old Iraq war veteran who is a staff writer for the Argus and a member of the class of 2018. Stascavage criticized Black Lives Matter for its role in creating an atmosphere that facilitated and condoned violence, and questioned whether the movement had "the potential for positive change."
He added, however, that the entire movement should not be stereotyped based on a few extreme members. Stascavage, who says he is a conservative, invoked as an example the "misguided" Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to hand out marriage licenses to same-sex couples to protest marriage equality. The op-ed argued that Davis, like the members of Black Lives Matter who Stascavage said were causing harm, was a fringe case who did not represent all the members of her cause.
Stascavage told The Huffington Post on Wednesday that he included Davis to show that more mainstream members of a movement may remain silent and allow hard-liners to monopolize the conversation.
"I'm guilty of my own criticism of the movement," he said, "which is that I haven't spoken out publicly."
"I do support a lot of what the [Black Lives Matter] movement does. I was just questioning how they are going about it," Stascavage continued. "I myself am not 100 percent sure of my own opinions. I write these pieces, put them out into the world and [look forward] to the responses. ... On a college campus nuance sort of gets lost, and I realize that now."
After the op-ed ran, critics demanded that the newspaper issue an apology. Instead, co-editors-in-chief Rebecca Brill and Tess Morgan wrote an editorial on Friday apologizing for the distress the op-ed had caused and the staff's "carelessness in fact-checking," but said the newspaper is "open to any writer who wants to share a view, whether or not the Opinion editors and the editors-in-chief agree with it."
Wesleyan President Michael Roth wrote a blog post over the weekend defending the paper, saying the community should not "demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable."
The Argus was also planning a "Black Out" issue that would be entirely written by students of color. However, those plans were put to a halt when the staff received a petition Sunday calling for the paper to be boycotted until several demands were met. The organizers who brought the petition accused the newspaper of "supporting institutional racism." Brill and Morgan declined to identify the organizers.
The petition's demands include social justice training for all publications and open spaces on campus dedicated to "marginalized groups."
The Argus covered the petition with a front-page story on Tuesday.
"Essentially, we agree with the core of the petition that the recent conversations surrounding the op-ed raise issues about the lack of diversity on our staff, and we could do better covering the student of color community," Brill told HuffPost.
The signatories also said the paper shouldn't receive funds unless it creates a work-study position, which Brill said isn't possible since the paper doesn't have enough money and staff members are not paid.
The petition was publicly available to edit as a Google Doc on Wednesday morning, but people began trolling it with joke suggestions, such as saying space should not be given to Republicans because they're "icky" and calling for a "mandatory fun day."
By mid-afternoon, the document had been made private, but not before it collected several additional signatures. No one was publicly named as a petition organizer. Several signatories of the petition did not return requests for comment.
Wesleyan Students Association President Kate Cullen said the association has "no standard procedure for hearing student-initiated petitions," and couldn't vote to defund the paper unless someone drafted legislation that would do so.
"The WSA would then discuss and vote on the Resolution and if it received a majority approval, it would become binding," Cullen said in an email. "At this time, there are no Resolutions on the floor. The WSA has never restricted free speech and promotes respectful discourse, which is why we are hosting a student Town Hall Meeting to discuss collaborative steps forward and to promote community building through greater equity and inclusion."
Brill said if the paper lost funding, it would seek out alternate sources of revenue and continue to operate. The Argus editors have no plans to terminate Stascavage as a staff writer.
The people calling for the defunding of the newspaper make up just a small percentage of the campus, Stascavage noted, but "they are also the most vocal and also the most active." He doesn't think the newspaper should make any further apologies for his op-ed.
"Free speech and the right to publish should be sacrosanct," Stascavage said, "and they should not apologize for that."