The following is a letter to the editor I submitted to The Link, one of Concordia University’s student newspapers, where I worked for four years in an editorial capacity and sat for two years on its board of directors. It’s having its annual general assembly on Friday, which is the one time every year where all fee-paying members (that is, all Concordia students) have the right to vote.
It’s a scary time, because student politicians have been known to try to take advantage of that right to try to exact revenge on editors who have criticized them, or try to take control over the paper to change how it covers the news.
But I think the paper has gone too far in trying to shield itself from this perceived menace.
As a former Concordia student and Link editor, I always make sure to pick up a copy of my old newspaper every time I’m near the campus. I’ve been reading with interest the paper’s coverage of the Concordia Student Union election and the dismissal of President Judith Woodsworth by the university’s Board of Governors. In coverage of both those issues, you called for increased transparency and accountability on the part of both student and university governments, and rightfully so.
But something I noticed has made me wonder if the next target of your demand for increased transparency shouldn’t be The Link itself.
As I write this, you and other members of the Link Publication Society (essentially, all Concordia students who bother showing up) are hours away from taking part in its annual general assembly, in which you appoint members to the paper’s board of directors, approve constitutional amendments and do other boring stuff that has nothing to do with the paper’s editorial content.
At the bottom of your notice for this meeting is written the following: “Constitutional amendments are available at the Link office.”
What’s notable about this is that it means this list is not available anywhere else. The proposed constitutional amendments were not printed in the paper. They are not available on the website (for that matter, neither is the constitution itself). The Link’s board is proposing changes to the rules that govern the way the organization runs and seems to be doing everything in its power to make it difficult for students to find out what those changes are. (I can only imagine what you make students go through if they want to see the amendments. Do they have to show ID? Are they allowed to take a copy out of the office or make notes? Are they monitored while they read them?)
I believe this is being done intentionally to prevent as many students as possible from seeing the proposed amendments before the meeting, in case any may disagree with them and want to round up support to vote them down.
It’s a perfectly understandable and justifiable fear. But it’s still wrong.
I don’t say this lightly. I know more than most the dangers of student politicians coming to this one meeting a year when they have the power to vote and using that power to take control of the paper for the sole purpose of affecting its editorial content. I know because I lived it in 2001.
Back then, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had taken over all other political discussion at the university, and editorial decisions of The Link caused a rift between the paper and members of a Palestinian activist group and the CSU. Enemies of the paper protested and passed around a petition calling for The Link to be shut down. They later used sheer numbers to take over the general assembly, appoint sympathetic students to the board and demand changes to the bylaws.
The result was a nasty political tug of war between Link editorial staff and student activists that caused the paper to be shut down over the summer.
In the years that followed, I proposed changes to The Link’s bylaws that strengthened its protections from those who would seek to control it for political reasons. (Those protections may still be in place. I don’t know for sure, because I don’t have access to The Link’s constitution.) I learned that increased transparency helps the free press more than it hinders, even if it may sometimes seem in the paper’s best interest to try to manipulate its own democratic processes.
It’s a delicate balancing act between having a newspaper that is free of political control and having one that is accountable to its members and properly protected from itself. But secrecy doesn’t protect The Link from politicians. It only serves to make it unaccountable and untransparent. And that makes it wrong.
I read with interest your recent decision to increase the use of your website by moving breaking news there. You can make a big leap in transparency by also posting your bylaws, constitutional amendments and board meeting minutes.
Transparency is scary in a world where knowledge is power. But The Link is strong. And if any politicians try to take it over again, I’ll be the first to run down there with a picket sign and make sure they don’t succeed.
Please reconsider your policy.
Steve Faguy, B.CompSc 2004, GrDip Journ. 2005
It may seem petty to care about how a university newspaper announces constitutional amendments half a decade after graduating from that university (sadly, I know people who have been gone longer and still care more). But I don’t think anyone else knows this issue as well as I do, and something compels me to write to them about it.
UPDATE: A shortened version of this letter (to meet their 400-word limit) appeared in Tuesday’s Link. Its editor says the paper is open to adding these documents online.