Stopping the Presses Won’t Heal the Hurt

Yuiko Sugino/Guardian

Pi Kappa Alpha and the less publicized fraternities responsible for the “Compton Cookout” are breathing a deep sigh of relief right now, because — just in the nick of time — the Koala has dependably swooped in to steal the spotlight.

All anger directed toward the Feb. 15 Black History Month-mocking frat party was quickly shifted to the campus humor newspaper everyone loves to hate on Thursday night, when Koala Editor in Chief Kris Gregorian dropped a drunken “ungrateful niggers” bomb on what had to be the greatest viewership Channel 18 has seen since Koala TV’s pornographic glory days. It was a terrible judgment call, made all the more cruel by its timing. The Black Student Union was fresh out of a Campus Black Forum and watching, waiting for an inevitable battle cry from the Koala camp.

Later that night, A.S. President Utsav Gupta shut down the recently revamped Student-Run Television (which he claims he didn’t know was airing Koala TV, though it’s the channel’s most consistent programming) in response. BSU Chairpersons David Ritcherson and Fnann Keflezighi declared UCSD’s campus climate was in a “State of Emergency” by 7:30 a.m. the next morning.

The back-and-forth was to be expected, but then Gupta took an unforeseen leap: He froze funding for all 33 student publications. “In any game where the players are getting hurt, you hit the pause button,” he said. Translation: If things start getting heated, you duct-tape the mouths of all those who might cause more trouble within your kingdom.

Though he has made it clear the A.S. Council is indeed doing everything it can to legally defund the Koala, his taboo Friday-morning decision was not a last-minute attempt to crush UCSD’s most controversial rag — which can be counted on to balloon the Cookout controversy to epic proportions. Anybody with a scrap of institutional memory knows the Koala will go to print, even if members have to write the issue in their own feces on spools of toilet paper. In fact, they’d probably love that.

No, Gupta’s freeze is obviously a lesson — one that contradicted his self-proclaimed undying commitment to enabling free student press. Outraged Black Student Unioners are demanding their fees not fund Koala hate speech, so Gupta feels he has to demonstrate the widespread consequences of making that dream come true — seeing as, by law, the A.S. Council cannot choose to defund certain publications based on content.

What we’ve learned: Gupta values dictatorial, learn-the-hard-way parenting over the unconditional preservation of free speech (or at least open dialogue) at UCSD, and is unfortunately equipped with absolute power over the A.S. budget. Sure, he has promised the media-org funding freeze will only last a week or two, depending on the progress made at a public committee meeting this Thursday or Friday. (Vice President of Finances Peter Benesch and Associate Vice President of Student Organizations Andrew Ang, a known adversary of the Koala, predict it will, in fact, last into Spring Quarter.) But considering forum attendees will take the form of both enraged BSU members and First Amendment warriors like the Koala, it’s safe to say there’s little chance for peaceful understanding or resolution. Only destined to add more fuel to the fire is Gupta’s possessive attitude: “I can ask at any time for anyone to leave the room,” he said.

Ironically, the freeze pretty much guarantees that Koala commentary will be the only physical media available during the next week of turmoil, as orgs without the same bloodthirsty penchant to claw at open wounds aren’t so likely to spill sweat and tears over finding advertisers, especially in time to print relevant material. It’s another willing sacrifice by Gupta in a game of Daddy-knows-best politics. (For instance, an informative and refreshing article on the California Review’s Web site will unfortunately receive a fraction of the readership it would if passed out on Library Walk.)

Because Gupta is aware it’s near impossible to seek immediate alternative funds, he therefore must be aware he is essentially censoring all existing publications. The freeze will likewise discourage the production of any new media from members of the BSU, or any other students in opposition to the Cookout and/or the Koala.

If there’s one thing the American Civil Liberties Union and Vice Chancellor of Student Life Penny Rue (not to mention any good therapist) can agree on, it’s that more speech — not less — is most beneficial to a hurting community.

So Gupta obviously went about this in the worst way possible. But what he’s trying to show us is valuable: Is it really worth winning back the few dollars we spend on media-org operations we don’t agree with, when the price is sucking the campus dry of all written discussion, and endangering an environment in which students can express themselves freely? Not to mention, if the freeze were to hold, we wouldn’t necessarily see those dollars back; it’s not like the A.S. Council would run a reverse referendum to lower student fees in accordance with the absence of media orgs on the budget. For all we know, that money might just melt into the giant Sun God pot-o’-funds.

The Koala receives about $7,000 per year for printing. That’s about 30 cents per student. In total, media orgs will receive $53,000 in 2009-10. If this is actually about our fees, let’s consider where else they’re going. Non-media orgs will receive $440,000. On top of that, “tradition events” — long-standing org fixtures — will receive $105,000. KSDT Radio will receive $11,000. Six beer gardens will cost over $90,000. The Sun God Festival will receive $550,000 — part of which may be sucked up by increased security. Perhaps, being a newspaper, we’re biased, but we feel journalism on campus is worth at least one-tenth of Sun God — even if that includes the kind that offends us.

Students should be equally worried if the A.S. Council — no doubt guided by whispers from the Campus Council — does find a way to cut only the Koala’s funds, or require all media content to be pre-approved, as has been suggested. The Koala may be an unpopular extreme, but depending on the council, the censorship threshold could fluctuate to include whatever they find unacceptable at the time.

Isn’t it clear by now that the Koala makes fun of everybody? And the more we get our panties in a twist, the nastier they’re likely to fight. Content is often in poor taste, but it ensures the rest of us continue to say what we want. Let’s instead focus on forming a stronger opposing army: Ethnic-studies departments and tutoring services need to be built back up, outreach efforts need more helping hands and there’s always room for more media orgs with minority viewpoints (assuming we survive the freeze). Heck, there’s even an affirmative-action march on Sacramento as we speak, ripe for the joining.

“This is probably the decision I’m going to be remembered by,” Gupta admitted. Hell yeah, it is. He just lost 34 voices of support across campus. Granted, he made the decision so students will understand the potential consequences of their angry requests — but that’s not worth this moment of silence, and neither is the jolting precedent it sets: casually cork the student voice when things get too noisy.

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