John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

Nitpicking student journalism

I read an article the other day in the Daily Cardinal, the UW-Madison student daily newspaper, about a new peer-to-peer mental health advising office scheduled to open this fall in the Student Activity Center. The new office was created by Associated Students of Madison, the student government, because ... well, here's what the article says about that:

The decision came after federal regulations forced ASM to deny the Mental Health Coalition’s application to spend next year in the SAC suite its offices occupied throughout the 2012-’13 academic year.

The Coalition, founded in March 2012, is a collective of three student organizations that encourage students to take an active role in their mental fitness, raise awareness of mental health issues and promote the services available on campus. It includes chapters of two national foundations–the National Alliance for Mental Illness and Active Minds–as well as UW-Madison suicide prevention group Ask. Listen. Save.

Every spring, ASM reviews applications each student organization is required to submit to receive office space the following year, according to [SAC Governing Board Chair Katie] Cary. It then allocates SAC suites to different student organizations based on subjective criteria the United States Supreme Court mandates, such as the number of participating members.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 the allocation process be done in a "viewpoint neutral" manner, which means ASM members are prohibited from taking an individual student organization’s mission statement or the work they do into consideration when designating resources and funds. Due to the legislation, the Coalition did not qualify for a renewal of their office space.

Hm. Well, maybe it's just me, but I don't think that makes very much sense. I see three problems.

First, the allocation process is described in the first paragraph as a regulation and in the fourth as legislation. In fact, it's neither. The Supreme Court is not a regulatory agency, nor is it a legislative body. If I'd edited this piece, I would have changed "regulations" to requirements, and "legislation" to decision. (Though come to think of it, "requirements" is a little misleading, since there's only one requirement: that the process they use be viewpoint neutral.)

Second, the third paragraph says that ASM "allocates SAC suites to different student organizations based on subjective criteria the United States Supreme Court mandates, such as the number of participating members." But that's the exact opposite of what the Supreme Court mandates. The decision in question (Southworth v. The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, if you care) requires the decisions to be made based on objective criteria, such as "fiscal responsibility, relevance to mission, and level of services provided." Granted, there's room for a bit of subjectivity in the setting of those standards -- what's fiscally responsible, what's relevant, what's acceptable, and so on -- but once those standards are set, they become yes/no questions.

Third, I don't believe that viewpoint neutrality in and of itself can force ASM to deny an application. Viewpoint neutrality forces ASM to apply a uniform standard and to base their judgements on factors unrelated to viewpoint. But does that mean that if a group with a noble purpose fails to meet those standards, it was viewpoint neutrality that forced ASM to deny funding to that group? I don't think so.

Tags: petty complaints, precise language is a virtue, uw-madison

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