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October 13, 1994

Assembly votes 32-0 in support of continued independence for Times

Faculty Assembly last week voted 32-0 to approve a resolution supporting the editorial independence of the University Times.

The question of whether the faculty and staff newspaper should continue to operate "with independence and freedom comparable to that of leading public news media" (as the Times's editorial policy stipulates) or whether it should be turned into a public relations "house organ" arose during an hour-long debate preceding the vote.

The debate itself centered around the decision by Leon Haley, vice chancellor for Public and Student Affairs, to forbid the Times from publishing a story in its Sept. 15 issue about the first same-sex wedding, or "commitment ceremony," to be held in Heinz Memorial Chapel. Haley's decision marked the first time in at least 15 years that a Pitt administrator ordered the Times not to print a story.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other local media subsequently reported on the same-sex ceremony and Haley's decision to pull the Times story about it.

Some people, including University Senate leaders, accused Pitt's administration of censorship. They charged that Haley killed the Times story because the administration is anxious not to further offend trustees and other benefactors who have expressed anger and withheld donations because of what they view as Pitt's advocacy of gay rights — for example, the University's practice of offering limited fringe benefits to same-sex domestic partners of faculty and staff.

But Haley, who is publisher of the Times and an ex-officio member of the newspaper's advisory board, denied the censorship charges. "The issue here is not, and never was, censorship," he said in a two-page written statement that he read at the Oct. 4 Assembly meeting. "The issues are the right to privacy and the University's very real commitment to non-discrimination, a commitment that is rooted in decades of policy and practice. And it is not a commitment that we should be willing to sacrifice merely to satisfy some individuals' opinions as to what constitutes news." Earlier in his statement, Haley said that the only reason for reporting on the "commitment ceremony" would have been because the participants were gay. "If the individual participants in this ceremony had desired public coverage of the event, would they themselves not have sought out media coverage?" Haley asked. "They did not; a fact which confirms even their desire for privacy. To treat these individuals differently than the thousands of others who have used the chapel, merely because of sexual orientation, would certainly seem to constitute discrimination. The University does not discriminate." In response to Haley's argument that reporting on the same-sex wedding would have violated the participants' privacy, Senate President James Holland pointed out that the Times story did not mention the participants' names — unlike the Post-Gazette, which identified one of the men and quoted him extensively.

Barbara Shore, a member of the Times advisory board, said she is acquainted with the participant quoted by the Post-Gazette and believes he knew what he was doing when he spoke with a reporter from that paper. "He didn't have to speak to a reporter," Shore told her fellow Assembly members. "A lot of people were called by that reporter and did not choose to speak." In his statement, Haley said the same-sex wedding "was a private religious ceremony, one of more than 300 — including weddings, baptisms, and memorial services — that are held annually in the Heinz Chapel. In its 25-year history, the University Times has never reported on any of these ceremonies, the majority of which have been weddings." The Times has a policy of not reporting on such events, according to Haley.

(Editor's note: The University Times editorial policy, last amended by the newspaper's advisory board in 1986, does not mention coverage of weddings or other private ceremonies. Chapel rules forbid taking photographs during memorial services, but the Times has run photographs taken outside the chapel during events such as the 1987 memorial service for H. J. Heinz II.) Senate President Holland noted that the Times reported last year on the wedding reception of a Pitt administrator's daughter in the William Pitt Union. That event, initially given approval in violation of a policy banning personal use of the union and most Pitt facilities, prompted a new policy permitting receptions at the William Pitt Union under certain conditions. "It's not as if there's a lack of precedents" of the Times reporting on private social or religious ceremonies, Holland said.

Several Assembly members argued that the same-sex ceremony was a historic event of interest to the University community. Shore noted that Chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor sent a letter to trustees prior to the ceremony, explaining why the University was allowing a homosexual couple to "marry" in the chapel, despite the fact that Pennsylvania law does not recognize same-sex marriages.

O'Connor wrote that Heinz Chapel is available to Pitt faculty, staff, students and alumni as well as employees of H.J. Heinz Co. for religious ceremonies. An ordained member of a denomination recognized by the Pitt Chaplains Association must officiate. One of the two men in the Sept. 10 ceremony was a Pitt alumnus and the officiating minister was from a recognized denomination, the chancellor noted. The ceremony also was permissible because the University prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, O'Connor wrote.

Some Assembly members asked: If the same-sex ceremony was deemed sufficiently important that trustees were told of it in advance, why wasn't it considered to be newsworthy for a faculty and staff publication? In his statement, Haley wrote that Heinz Chapel religious events "have no 'news value' which is consistent with the University Times principal reporting functions. In this regard, the University Times reflects the general view of the media at large regarding the general lack of news value for weddings. The Post-Gazette requires you to pay to have your wedding announced in its pages, and TV and radio won't touch them for any amount of money." Shore pointed out that while the Post-Gazette normally doesn't cover weddings, it did report on the same-sex ceremony, for the same reason the University Times tried to do so: because its staff judged it to be a news event, not merely a religious or social one.

In response to a question from Assembly member Christina Paulston, Haley said he personally made the decision to order Times Editor Nancy J. Brown to pull the same-sex wedding story. Haley said he consulted with "some senior staff members" but added that Chancellor O'Connor was unaware of the decision.

The Assembly motion to support the Times's independence was proposed by Richard Tobias (who, along with Shore, is a member of the Times advisory board because he is one of the Senate's two most recent past presidents.) Tobias said the advisory board met for the first time in eight years on Sept. 22, partly to discuss a consultant's recommendations for improving Pitt communication efforts, including the University Times. The meeting was scheduled before the controversy over the same-sex wedding story arose.

The consultant — M. Frederic Volkmann, vice chancellor for Public Affairs at Washington University in St. Louis — concluded that the Times is failing to meet its stated objective of being "the primary source of independent, accurate news and information about the University, its programs and its personnel." Instead, Volkmann wrote, the Times too often focuses on institutional politics, especially "contention, dissension, and significant disagreement within the various factions of the University." Volkmann also said that the newspaper's editorial staff — made up of a full-time editor, a full-time assistant editor and a half-time writer — does not work closely enough with the University's public relations staff and "virtually ignores" Pitt's medical center, which publishes its own employee newsletter, Extra. Volkmann recommended that the administration take greater control over the paper's content and its advisory board, and that the Times cease competing for stories with The Pitt News and the local press.

"Pitt has denied itself a true administrative voice within the institutional family by creating a publication that appears to be cut off and separate from the administration itself," Volkmann wrote.

Tobias and Shore said they opposed turning the Times into what they called a "house organ." They said they didn't originally intend to discuss the issue at Faculty Assembly, preferring to work through the Times advisory board. But recent publicity on the same-sex wedding story forced the issue out into the open, they said.

The advisory board is scheduled to continue discussing the Times editorial policy at the board's next meeting on Oct. 20.

Haley, when asked by Senate President Holland whether he supported the Times's current policy of editorial independence, said: "It is not my mandate to change that policy. If it gets changed, it will be changed through a process at this University. Whether I agree with the purpose of the Times within this University compared to other universities who have similar or different kinds of publications is a matter of professional judgment.

"If you ask me to stand on record to say that there would be no suggestion on my part that we ought to move to other vehicles for communication, at this point in time I am not prepared to say that." Tobias and Shore criticized consultant Volkmann for not talking with any faculty in doing research for his report. Volkmann interviewed 32 Pitt administrators and communications staff members (including University Times personnel), a Post-Gazette reporter and "anonymous public relations/communications professionals in the Pittsburgh area," according to a list that Haley provided to the Times advisory board.

Just prior to the vote on Tobias's motion, Assembly member Herb Chesler said the Assembly could not separate the same-sex wedding story from what he called "the clear and present danger to the University Times.

"What I find offensive," Chesler continued, "is that a consultant was brought to campus and we (faculty) were not included in the purview of the consultant's activities. I find that ominous. I find it threatening."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 4

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