By Rhia Perkins
Charges of bias and libel convinced Students’ Union oYcials to seize almost 10,000 copies of the University of Alberta student newspaper, the Gateway, Tuesday. After intense debate, issues appeared on stands later that evening.
The seizure, centred around the part of the editorial which evaluated the U of A SU Election candidates, concerns the race for Vice-president External. The candidates are Naomi Agard, who filed the complaint and wrote for the Gateway last year, and Barry Tanner, who is currently on leave from his position as Gateway sports editor to run in the election.
"Agard’s time served on Students’ Council hasn’t given her a firmer grasp on the issues than Tanner has, and she hasn’t actually brought about any changes while on Council," read the editorial. "Tanner has a broader range of experience and, again, he gets the nod for being well-spoken."
Agard approached Chief Returning Officer Stacy Prochnau around 10 a.m. Tuesday with her complaint. Prochnau examined SU bylaws and approached the SU with a possible conflict between a bylaw which states that clubs and individuals cannot publicly endorse election candidates, and another which gives the Gateway effective editorial autonomy.
"After looking at the two bylaws, I decided that there was a possible conflict," said Prochnau. "I talked to the Executive. We locked up about 9,500 of the 10,000 papers waiting to be distributed."
Gateway Editor-in-Chief Neal Ozano was furious.
"I roared to school in my car," he said. "I didn’t know what to do. Had it been [done] through a more democratic process, I wouldn’t have been so angry."
Ozano and other Gateway staff members immediately met with the executive. The SU turned the complaint over to their Discipline Interpretation and Enforcement Board, which interprets and enforces the SU bylaws and constitution. A meeting was called for 6 p.m. Tuesday. The DIE Board meeting resulted in a 2-2 tie, with a tie-breaking vote cast by the board chairman in favour of the Gateway.
"The DIE Board felt first and foremost that it was not our job to decide whether the editorial contained libel," said Board Representative Nadine Arendt. "The issue before us was whether the CRO or a member of the SU has the right to freeze distribution."
According to Arendt, SU bylaws state that the Gateway’s role is "to convey news impartially, accurately and completely." She said the board’s decision was based on a precedent established in Dec. 1997, when they ruled that the Gateway has autonomy in editorial comment and that it is a newspaper.
"The Gateway is autonomous," said Arendt. "It can write an editorial and recommend the candidates. They are a SU service, but they are first and foremost a newspaper."
Prochnau said her authority to freeze distribution was clear in context of the SU’s election bylaws.
"I understand the arguments of freedom of the press," she said. "The real issue is: at which point do we actually have a newspaper here as opposed to a club? The bylaws clearly say that they do not have autonomy."
"The decision came down that we were right and that the CRO was incorrect in locking away the paper," he said.
Members of the Gateway distributed the paper on foot as soon as the decision was made. Ozano stressed the important censorship issues arising from the distribution freeze.
"There was a whole paper full of information that was of value to students; the only thing the CRO found important was the editorial," he said. "The worst repercussion is that freedom of the press has been severely threatened."