Duquesne SGA attempts to silence The Duke

By: Kaye Burnet | Staff Columnist

The SGA doesn’t want Duquesne students to know how they spend student money.

In a laughably pretentious letter, dripping with condescension and SAT vocabulary words, the Student Government Association attempted last week to prevent The Duke from sharing basic SGA budget information that was made public at an open meeting. (Editor’s Note: For full details about what this information was and how it was obtained,click here. For full text of the letter, visit www.duqsm.com)

To summarize, The Duke publishes every week on Wednesday nights so papers can hit newsstands Thursday morning. Last Wednesday at approximately 9 p.m., SGA Vice President of Student Life Ciara Bartic and Vice President of Academic Affairs Stephen O’Brien visited The Duke newsroom to attempt to persuade Editor-in-Chief Leah Devorak not to publish any budgetary information. When Devorak declined their request, explaining that the information was gathered ethically from a public meeting, Bartic and O’Brien produced a letter addressed to Maggie Patterson, a journalism professor and chairperson of Duquesne’s Publications Board.

The letter demanded that Patterson prevent The Duke from publishing information about the SGA’s budget, which Duke News Editor Raymond Arke obtained at the SGA’s most recent bi-weekly public meeting.

Actually, I’m being generous. The letter was nowhere near as concise as I’m making it sound. Instead, it was filled with legalese jargon, like the following:

“It is the belief of the Student Government Association that all Proprietary Information [sic] is sensitive due to the potential for certain information pertaining to individual organizations or line items, and said information could be used in ways that violate SGA rules regarding the disclosure and use of budgetary and financial information. During Regular Senate [sic] meetings of the SGA, any students of Duquesne University, SGA members, or invited guests may be present for the meeting unless otherwise determined. In such cases, however, all those present must abide by the rules and regulations of the Student Government Association.”

After you wade through the atrocious abuse of commas and unnecessarily capitalized words, it appears that the SGA Executive Board is trying to retroactively hold The Duke accountable to its own organization’s meeting rules after they accidentally shared budgetary information during a public meeting. There are a number of problems with this.

First, nobody, including The Duke, is required to abide by the SGA’s internal rules. This is especially the case when those rules were never announced before, during or after the meeting and no representative of The Duke ever agreed to any meeting rules.

Second, there are no such rules. Members of The Duke’s staff spent a long evening pouring over the SGA’s 12-page constitution and 27-page bylaws document searching for anything close to the “rules and regulations” that would prevent The Duke from publishing SGA budget information. We found nothing. If you don’t believe us — the documents are all available on Campus Link.

Third, and perhaps most seriously, the SGA was trying to hold The Duke accountable for their mistake by imposing the harshest possible weapon a news organization can face: prior restraint. Prior restraint means barring an organization from publishing information that they have obtained. It means silencing the organization. Therefore, when it comes to non-campus media, prior restraint is severely limited in the United States by the First Amendment.

According to the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, “Prior restraint [is] strongly disfavored, and, with some exceptions, generally unconstitutional.”

Campus media at a private university is not subject to the full protections of the First Amendment, and the SGA is not bound by the same considerations as the federal government. Of course, given their obvious love of obtuse legal language, you’d think the SGA would be more aware of the legal community’s disdain for prior restraint. You’d also think it would realize that every other level of actual government in the United States publishes their budgetary information.

At the heart of this issue is the idea that the SGA doesn’t think students can or should be trusted with budgetary information. It feels this so strongly that it gave a six-paragraph injunction request at 11:30 p.m. to stop The Duke from sharing that information with you.

The fact that the SGA does not make its budget easily available to any interested Duquesne student is a disgrace. That budget comes from student money, and students have a right to know how their representatives are spending the $81,000 allotted to the SGA annually.

In the words of SGA Vice President of Communication Maria Miller during the candidate debate hosted by The Duke last year, “Transparency is one of the key elements that we would like to focus on… I think that we need to make SGA more transparent, so that the students know what we’re working on and so that they feel comfortable coming to us when they have ideas, when they have suggestions, when they have problems, when things like these occur.”

In conclusion, SGA: The students of Duquesne need far more transparency from you and far less circumlocution. And when it comes to using sesquipedalian words, don’t try to tussle with the student newspaper. I assure you, our SAT verbal scores were much higher than yours.