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July 3, 2015

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UNLV student government group reasserts authority to appoint Rebel Yell’s top editor

Journalism professor says plan places student journalists in ‘intolerable situation’

Two UNLV organizations say they have the sole authority to appoint the top editor of the school’s student newspaper, leading to a conflict that some say threatens the newspaper’s independence and future.

For the past 16 years, an advisory board made up of professors, working journalists and student representatives, including a member of the student government, has chosen the editor-in-chief of the Rebel Yell.

But Mark Ciavola, president of the Consolidated Students of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the school’s student government, says the power to choose the Rebel Yell’s editor belongs with his organization as laid out in its constitution, and the student government intends to exercise that power by appointing a new editor at its June 4 meeting.

“We should be able, in accordance with our constitution ... to appoint the person who runs the paper,” Ciavola said.

The idea doesn’t sit well with the Rebel Yell’s advisers and many of its current and former student journalists.

“It’s a peril for any news entity to derive its authority from a government entity,” said journalism professor and Rebel Yell Advisory Board member Mary Hausch. “It’s an intolerable situation for student journalists to be placed in. ... I cannot encourage my students to work on a newspaper where the editor is chosen by the student government.”

Hannah Birch, a recent UNLV graduate and former Rebel Yell staffer, said having the student government choose the editor goes against everything she learned in classes at UNLV.

“(The Rebel Yell) gives students the training they’re going to need to do journalism when they graduate. ... The emphasis has always been reporting independently,” said Birch, who is interning with the Seattle Times this summer. “To go to a student newspaper and not have those standards upheld is really concerning.”

For the first 40 years of its existence, UNLV’s Rebel Yell operated as a part of the student government. In 1995, the paper was made independent and the advisory board was created to oversee the Rebel Yell’s operations, Hausch said, even though the paper continued to receive about half of its funding from student fees.

When the advisory board was created, new policies gave it the authority to appoint the paper’s editor-in-chief, but similar wording was never removed from the student government constitution.

Revisions to state Board of Regents’ policies in 2009 did away with the section concerning the rights and authority of the Rebel Yell’s advisory board. Neither the board nor the student government were informed of the changes, and the section delegating power to the advisory board was never replaced, in what some are calling an “oversight,” Hausch said.

UNLV’s Office of the General Counsel has investigated the matter and determined that until policy changes are made, the student government has the sole authority to choose the Rebel Yell’s editor-in-chief.

Ciavola said the student government has a responsibility to make sure that student fees are spent responsibly and that his organization has no intentions of influencing the Rebel Yell’s editorial content. Every year, the Rebel Yell receives 8.7 percent of the collected student fees, which this year was about $111,000.

“The idea that we’re supposed to fund half the budget and they don’t want us appointing the editor-in-chief because of independence is laughable,” he said.

Ciavola, 37, was elected president of the student government in April. The political science junior is also active in politics, chairing the Nevada College Republicans and working on Rep. Joe Heck’s re-election campaign.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Legal Center, said although many college newspapers rely in part on student fees to fund their operation, he couldn’t think of any instances where the student government chooses the paper’s management.

“It’s one thing to give student government a voice; it’s another thing to give them controlling influence. It’s dangerous,” he said.

LoMonte said student government and how student fees are spent is at the core of what a college newspaper should cover, and its ability to do so independently would be undermined if the student government can hire or fire editors at will.

“It’s impossible to divorce editorial judgment from the selection of an editor,” he said. “No professional news organization chooses its management that way.”

Traditionally, LoMonte said, editors of a college newspaper are chosen by an advisory board or internally by departing editors and staff.

Steve Sebelius, a Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist and Rebel Yell Advisory Board member for 14 years, said until the Board of Regents added back in language giving the board authority to choose the editor, that power would lie with the student government.

An amendment to the student government’s constitution would also be needed to give full authority to the advisory board.

“We’re certainly open to putting on the ballot a constitutional revision that would remove our authority,” Ciavola said, “but we aren’t going to do that so long as they keep taking half their budget from our funds.”

Las Vegas Sun reporter Paul Takahashi serves as a member of the Rebel Yell’s advisory board, and reporter Rick Velotta serves as the paper’s paid adviser.

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