At the March 26 meeting of the 326th Student Assembly of the College of William and Mary, senators and representatives of the College’s Media Council discussed concerns over free press and censorship that ensued from a proposed bill to reduce Media Council’s reserve funding.
The proposed Financial Regulatory Act, sponsored by Class of 2019 President Sikander Zakriya ’19 and Sen. Jessica Seidenberg ’19, places a threshold on Media Council reserves at $55,000 after the 328th Senate, or the 2020-2021 academic year. Debate was held among senators over whether the $55,000 figure should be imposed as a reserve ceiling or a reserve floor, but senators were unable to reach a conclusion over this threshold by the end of debate.
After the renegotiation of the contract between Media Council Chair Sarah Smith ’19 and SA President Brendan Boylan ’19, Media Council reserves had already been reduced from $87,000 to $75,000 for the 2019-2020 academic year.
Zakriya argued that the reduction of Media Council reserves in accordance with his proposed resolution would not drastically affect the Media Council’s funding capabilities. Zakriya stated that in years past, the Media Council had hardly dipped into reserves, with the highest spending amount — $34,000 — being incurred only following the flooding of WCWM in Campus Center this year.
“This does not change the over $100,000 the publications council is already awarded through the funding process,” Zakriya said. “To be clear, most of the publications that are on the publications council get funded through that over $100,000 that we allocate them in this process. The reserves are only for catastrophic accidents and other uses they need to spend their money on. The reason why Jess and I are deciding to put this into our bill is because we believe that $20,000 could be used to fund other organizations on campus that don’t get enough funding.”
Smith raised concerns over the lack of communication between the resolution’s sponsors and representatives from the Media Council, believing that Media Council should have been included in discussions about changes to its reserves.
“One of my concerns with this bill is that I was not contacted or notified in any way by the sponsors of this bill beforehand” Smith said. “I’ve accepted their apologies and I do appreciate that, but I would also like to bring that knowledge to the rest of the body that had I been notified — I’m someone who cares and takes everything I do very seriously — I would have been here last Tuesday and I would have been at committee on Sunday. I do believe that had I been involved in this, I would have been able to negotiate and adjust the floor that is more appropriate to the design of the media council body.”
Smith then discussed that when she presented to SA both in the fall and earlier this spring, she expressed genuine intent to foster a relationship between SA and Media Council. Smith felt that senators’ institutional knowledge, as well as their vibrant conversations on the senate floor, were all ways that SA could improve Media Council moving forward.
However, Smith pointed out that SA had not completed its guaranteed promises to Media Council, and mentioned SA’s failure to appoint liaisons to the Media Council. Smith raised concerns over SA passing a bill that would affect the Media Council’s funding before senators worked on improving its relationship with Media Council.
“There’s still a lot of formal work to be done on holding up the end of the contract on SA’s part,” Smith said. “And so now I have to ask, why can’t we trust this process of building a relationship while there’s still work on that end to be done before we take financial action? What point is it to talk about you guys needing to know your constituents if those relationships are not being worked on and not being taken into consideration before a bill is drafted on and taken to a vote in secrecy of the people who it affects?”
Smith also expressed her misgivings about the future of the free press at the College, and discussed the significant consequences that SA votes have on student organizations.
Smith recalled a 2017 incident where several multicultural student organizations came forward to share with SA that they felt mistreated during SA’s annual funding analyzes due to senators’ lack of understanding about their respective organization. According to Smith, the lack of funding in 2017 stemmed from discriminatory processes within SA finance; while the discriminatory issues found with the EAC process were a central focus of candidates running for SA president in the 2017 SA elections. Smith wondered if the student press will encounter similar obstacles in the future.
“What happens years down the line when someone is in my place and the next contract is up for negotiation and there are senators or people involved in SA finance who don’t believe in the free press or disagree with the values of the student publication and are interested in censorship?” Smith said. “There are these questions of how a few people could have a broader impact and I would just like to ask you to think in two years if you believe that a senate would vote to negotiate a higher floor than exists? Is that something you think will happen based on the current operations?”
Boylan argued that reducing Media Council’s reserve funding was not an attack on the free press or free speech at the College, but that the resolution’s proposed shifting of monetary resources could be used to serve the student body more efficiently.
“Now I know that there’s a lot of value and I’m not trying to denigrate the value of publications or scholarly journals, most of which are under the auspices of grad schools or Rocket or The Flat Hat, and I understand that and I’m not denigrating the value of that at all, but this is $181,000 of student money going toward Media Council,” Boylan said. “Why can’t we have more of our money so that we can serve the student body in a more efficient way?”
Meanwhile, Class of 2020 President and SA President-elect Kelsey Vita ’20 and Class of 2021 President David DeMarco ’21 brought up the point that the Media Council was unaware of this bill until recently.
“We are not doing our jobs properly if we don’t consult the people who are impacted by our decisions,” Vita said. “I do think it’s wrong that the Media Council just found out about this today and they were not consulted about it.”
DeMarco defended the importance of the Media Council and called SA’s own spending history into question.
“If I had confidence that an extra $20,000 in our budget would make reasonable or even substantial differences in the initiatives that we provide every year and make a lot more changes for the students, then I would’ve said yeah, maybe we shouldn’t,” DeMarco said. “But one of the big problems we have here on campus is that we’re a silent campus and people need to hear, I think we do good work in Student Assembly. People need to hear more about it. By cutting funding, you are hurting the Media Council, one of the ways that we get the information out, and I think that it is really naive for us to think that because we are elected representatives that we know more than everyone on the Media Council as to what students want.”
Aside from dialogue about Media Council funding, earlier in the meeting, Tara Clark ’20, Treasurer of the College’s chapter of Amnesty International, gave a presentation about the Refugees Welcome Resolution with support from Zakriya, Sen. Kyle Vasquez ’21 and Sen. Helen Tariku ’21. This resolution aims to make the College more accessible to refugees and asylum-seeking students.
The Amnesty International chapter and senators plan to work with the Reves Center, the University Registrar, the Office of Admissions, the Financial Aid Office, the Office of First Year Experience and WMSURE in order to welcome refugees to the College as students, staff and faculty members.
Outreach policies designed for refugee and asylum-seeking students include creating a multilingual admissions webpage and the possibility of offering application fee waivers. The resolution also calls on the College to research potential scholarships specifically for refugees, such as the kinds offered by Brown University, Dartmouth College and Syracuse University. The resolution currently has over 300 signatures.
Also at this week’s meeting:
- The Senate passed the Rapid Flashing Beacon Act, which allocates $15,000 from the SA reserves to pay for two new flashing traffic beacons at the crosswalk near Campus Center and the crosswalk bordering Sorority Court.
- The Senate passed the Constitutional Omnibus Amendment of 2019 sponsored by Sen. Hailey Guerra D. ’19, Sen. Jack Bowden ’19 and Sen. Anthony Joseph ’21, which clarified discrepancies found between SA’s Constitution and bills passed by previous senates. The bill also updated SA’s Constitution to include gender neutral pronouns.
- SA approved their budget for the 2019-2020 school year with friendly amendments to transfer $10,000 from AMP Collaborative Concert Fund to the SA Concert Fund and $50.00 from the AMP collaborative concert fund to the Minority Pre-Law for their Social with Professionals.
- Election Commission Chair Sarah Baker ’19 presented SA election data to the senate, stating that the 47 percent voter turnout rate was the highest turnout in recent years.
- The Senate introduced new bills that will be voted on at the April 2 meeting to improve SA election processes. The Fair Election Act seeks to provide transparency to the election process by making presidential election funding available to the student body. The Elections Listserv Use Act will standardize the use of Listservs when communicating to the student body and placing such communications under the purview of the Elections Commission. The Elections Commission Assurance Act aims to standardize the number of appointees to the Elections Commission, as it currently does not meet the standard of SA’s Constitution.