The Battle Between UCSB Student Government and the Daily Nexus
by Drew Mackie • Photographs by Paul Wellman
When members of the UCSB Associated Students Legislative Council voted at a January 17 meeting to freeze funding to the school’s student-run newspaper, the Daily Nexus, one had to wonder if they and the handful of Nexus staff members present realized how accurately they were reenacting a performance of the tensions that have plagued the two entities for the past 30 years.
Leading up to that vote, the traditional scripts were read: Legislative Council members accused the paper of bias and racial insensitivity, and Nexus representatives countered that student government was trying to quash its freedom of speech. Despite periods of more amiable interaction, these very charges have been lobbed back and forth since UCSB’s official campus newspaper began running under the Daily Nexus banner in 1970. For those who have followed the history of the fight — as this reporter has, a former employee with the Nexus — this incident stands apart from the previous run-ins. This time, Leg Council members claim the Nexus has so transgressed the collective mores of the school that it deserves to lose a portion of its funding for the rest of the academic quarter. The newspaper’s perceived crime is that it accepted advertising money from Conquest Student Housing, the company that evicted residents of Isla Vista’s Cedarwood Apartments last fall. “What the Nexus did is wrong. I’m not in favor of anyone profiting off these evictions,” said Council Off-Campus Representative Jeronimo Saldana, referring to Conquest Student Housing’s full-page advertisements in the Nexus.
Following the Cedarwood evictions, many UCSB students protested what they perceived to be unfair treatment of the complex’s residents, many of whom were Latino. In late 2006, the Leg Council approved a boycott of the company. Saldana and other council members say that because the Nexus receives funding through the council, running the ads violated the boycott. Furthermore, to hear council members tell it, the Conquest ad represented an ethical disconnect between the Nexus and the student body. Some Legislative Council members claimed the paper’s editorial content also reflected a racist bias. The extent of the council’s frustration was exemplified by Saldana’s request that he not be photographed by a Nexus photographer during the meeting. “I don’t want my name in [the paper],” he explained. “I, as an angry person of color, don’t want to be associated with it. … I don’t even read the Nexus anymore.” Daily Nexus Editor-in-Chief Kaitlin Pike later responded to the objection to the Conquest ad by explaining that the Nexus observes the traditional separation between the editorial and advertising offices.
At the meeting’s end, the council voted 13-5 in favor of an impassioned resolution written by Saldana to end the paper’s cash flow from the Associated Students, despite the fact that the council’s acting executive director, Marilyn Dukes, advised the student government group that she had not determined whether revoking funds would violate the First Amendment.
Pike said the money constituted about seven percent of the paper’s annual income. She believes the Associated Students (AS) Legal Code prohibits the student government from restricting the money, as the paper is not technically a Legislative Council-affiliated organization. She said the money in question — a lock-in fee of 85 cents per student per quarter and 57 cents per student during summer sessions — is collected and disbursed, but not controlled, by the council. According to Pike, since UCSB students voted to pay this fee in an on-campus election, the funding can only be eliminated through another vote by the student body. “I don’t want a lawsuit,” Pike said in an interview following the meeting. “That would be expensive for the students. But I’m willing to fight for this.”
On the Friday following the meeting, however, Legislative Council President Jared Goldschen vetoed the resolution on the grounds that such measures could be illegal and unconstitutional. He also had concerns about punishing the Nexus monetarily, given that UCSB’s most recent audit of the Nexus showed it was more than $600,000 in debt. “I veto this bill not to downplay the level of responsibility and accountability we should hold the Nexus to, but to ensure that Legislative Council is acting in accordance with the law and respects the due process,” Goldschen explained in a written statement.
While Saldana and other Nexus critics look into what retributive measures the AS Legal Code allows them, the apparent death of this attempt to revoke funding does not quiet UCSB’s debate over journalistic integrity. At the same meeting that approved Saldana’s resolution, Legislative Council members outlined their view of the paper’s failings, including the fact that the university has little oversight into how the paper is run and that staff receives no formal training.
Council members also read aloud some of the paper’s content, including an item from the “Weatherhuman” — a humor column that appears beneath the Daily Nexus masthead — in which Leg Council members were derided as “whiny little bitches.” The “Weatherhuman” — which is written anonymously, usually by a staff member — was the subject of controversy a year ago when an item appearing in the first issue after Martin Luther King Day bore the headline “King of Spades.” Pike explained that when editorial staff learned that “spade” was a derogatory term for an African-American, the editor who had written the item was immediately fired. “How can you read something like that and think it’s morally correct?” asked On-Campus Representative Scarlet Chan, who burst into tears during the meeting.
Pike was quick to point out that the paper’s opinion page served as a forum for free speech, and that all viewpoints were published. “It’s your student newspaper,” she said. “If you want to change it, you need to be the change you want to see.” She then encouraged her critics to write in response to articles they found offensive or incorrect.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
Daily Nexus staffers are well versed in such debate. While acclaimed in some circles, the Nexus has frequently butted heads with the AS Leg Council and UCSB’s various minority groups, sometimes simultaneously. The first notable instance of this was the Nexus’s attempt to free itself from the economic control of the council, which has previously held more sway over the publication’s finances. After changing its name from El Gaucho, the Nexus introduced a ballot measure in the 1974 on-campus election that awarded it the very lock-in fee the current Legislative > > > Council voted to restrict from the paper. Ironically, the measure was designed to protect Nexus funds — and therefore content — from being manipulated by student government, a frequent target of the paper’s criticism.
The following year, Jim Minnow narrowly won the position of editor-in-chief over Murvin Glass, who then became president of UCSB’s Black Student Union and a candidate for AS president. When the Nexus printed an editorial cartoon depicting Glass stealing copies of the paper, Glass successfully sued both Minnow and the Nexus. According to a history of the Nexus compiled by staff members, the paper investigated claims into financial misappropriation by the 1984 AS president, which ultimately ended in his resignation. And in 1986, the Nexus responded to more protests with an apology for failing to mention Ronald McNair — the only African-American astronaut on the Challenger — from an article discussing the disaster.
The Nexus faced charges of racism again in 1990, when a story on a confrontation between police officers and African-American students referred to the incident as a “race riot.” In 1994, staff turmoil ended in the resignation of the paper’s first Filipina editor-in-chief, sparking claims by the Leg Council and other campus groups that her ethnicity played a notable role in the premature end of her tenure. In 1997, Nexus staff threatened legal action against the AS president, whom they believed stole copies of the paper featuring editorials critical of a student government project. And in late 1998, Asian students protested against the Nexus after it ran a story that suggested Vietnamese immigrants were responsible for disappearing dogs in Isla Vista.
Cervin Morris, who served as AS president during the 2004-2005 school year, recently claimed the Nexus unfairly targeted him because he’s African-American. After he was charged with assault during his presidency, Morris claimed the Nexus hounded him, publishing articles about every step in the legal ordeal that ensued. “Every time something would happen, they’d put the whole story in the paper again,” Morris said. He pointed out that only one article was written about AS Vice President Adam Graff’s public intoxication arrest in 2006.
Morris also added his voice to those criticizing the Nexus for running two front-page photographs illustrating the arrests of former UCSB student Ricardo King, one for allegedly shoplifting and another in connection with attempted rape charges. The protesters argued that repeatedly running photos of an African-American man being arrested depicted African-American students in a negative light. According to Morris, the paper seeks attention through sensationalist reporting. “I think it’s something that gets people to read the newspaper — scandal and taboo… . People will pick it up to see what’s going on,” he said. “It’s the Nexus trying to get in the middle of conflict.”
Due to the frequency of such clashes, virtually every UCSB employee who has worked for the Nexus, with the AS Leg Council, or a minority interest group has an opinion on what causes the cycle. For Brendan Buhler, who served as editor-in-chief for an unprecedented two years, from 2002-2004, the criticisms from minority groups and Leg Council are linked because student organizations tend to dominate the council and AS elections have consistently low voter turnout. “You’d only need about 200 people or so to get elected,” he said. Buhler characterized AS members as “hypersensitive” and argued that charges of racism are levied against the paper again and again due to the memory of past controversies rather than real grievances.
Aaron Jones — a UCSB alum who now serves as the council’s Student Government Advisor — likens the conflict to the Hatfields and McCoys. Though he admits that animosity between the two entities has always existed, he lays the much of the blame for its continuance on the Nexus. “I don’t get the sense that the Nexus staff gets much training,” Jones said. “Maybe the publications director can help improve the paper and help it branch out to more facets of the community. Maybe then [minority groups] will feel welcome at their school paper.”
The position Jones mentioned was vacated when Tybie Kirtman retired in September 2006 after working for the paper for 13 years. In Kirtman’s view, the Nexus’s freedom from the university is a virtue, not a liability. “I always told the editors [that] the chancellor may be the most powerful individual, but the Nexus is the most powerful entity,” Kirtman said. “And they learned how to do it on their own. And I think they did a remarkable job with it.” Kirtman blames the controversy on the fact that both the paper’s staff and the student government turn over every four years, making learning from past mistakes difficult. “There’s no history there. Nobody remembers,” she said.
Brandon Brod, who until 2005 served as UCSB’s conduct educator and hate crime response coordinator, called the charges of racism against the Nexus “total bullshit.” “When people use [the term] ‘hate speech,’ they’re saying that they read something that made them sad,” said Brod, who has left academia. He claimed that the frequency of racism charges against the Nexus stem from a leftist academic atmosphere that leaves no room for dissenting viewpoints. “My experience at UCSB nearly made me turn Republican — and I’m saying that as an openly gay man,” Brod joked.
OLD HABITS DIE HARD
Regardless of their opinions on the nuances of the AS Legislative Council-Daily Nexus conflict, most authorities agree the strife could be tempered by improved communication. Fund for Santa Barbara Executive Director Geoff Green credits his positive rapport with the Nexus during his 1993-1994 tenure as AS president to a healthy, mutual understanding between the two groups about their respective goals. To further this effort, Green started “A.S. As It Is,” a weekly opinion column that shared elected officials’ thoughts with Nexus readers.
But Kerri Webb — who served as the paper’s first African-American editor-in-chief from 1998-1999 — believes the chances of ending the feud altogether are slim. “The Daily Nexus and Associated Students have always had a love-hate relationship,” Webb said. “If the Nexus gets away from its mission of serving the students and reporting the news, then they need to take a step back.” Recalling her days heading the paper, Webb also admits that the sparring relationship between the two groups — not uncommon between government agencies and the journalists who report about them — did have its advantages. “It made the job a little more interesting,” she said.
Pike said she is ready to move past this most recent conflict and begin looking ahead to other projects she’d like to complete during her year in charge of the paper. “I just see it as one more bitter spat between the Nexus and AS. I would like to move beyond this,” she said, adding that she’d be happy to entertain the concerns of the Nexus’s critics in person.
For Saldana, the Conquest Student Housing advertisements are not so easily forgotten. Convinced of his resolution’s legality, he and other AS members will consider overturning the president’s veto at next week’s council meeting. “We’d need a majority vote, and I think we can do it,” he said.