Censorship at YU: The Commentator Controversy
Since its inception, The Commentator has been a constant presence at YU. Even if not everyone reads it, it is always present, churning out articles about happenings on and off campus. As a student-run paper, it is not beholden to the administration or its standards, and over the years writers and editors have taken advantage of that liberty. Unfortunately, not everyone approved of their adversarial antics, and it appears that significant attempts were made to curtail The Commentator's influence.
In the fall semester of 1999, copies of The Commentator and The Observer began to go missing. On two separate occasions, YU Facilities had covertly removed hundreds of issues of The Commentator from public spaces for “safety and aesthetic reasons.” At the time, it was apparently common practice for YU to remove student publications prior to public events. Administrators were unfazed, with one noting, “they’ve been doing this for years … it's not surprising that they did it this time either.”
These two instances, however, drew particular attention, as the issues in question contained several articles deeply critical of the administration. One issue questioned the dismissal of a secretary, and another suggested that YU had misused an $8 million gift. Claims of conspiracy presumably abounded, and an article was published in the next edition of The Commentator alleging that YU Facilities was deliberately censoring the paper. But almost nobody got to read it. Before distribution, 1800 copies of the issue mysteriously disappeared.
When the students investigated, senior security officials confirmed that Jeffrey Socol, director of Facilities Management, had instructed the staff to remove the copies. This was the last straw for the editors, who demanded reimbursement to the tune of $2000 and an immediate stop to the suppressive activity. “My goal is to put a stop to this,” said co-Editor in Chief Aaron Klein. “And if initiating a lawsuit is what it is going to take, we are prepared to do that.”
To add even more pressure, Harold Levy, a member of the Board of Regents, sent then-President Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm a letter asking why YU was silencing student publications. A second member of the board suggested that the matter might become subject to investigation if it was not promptly clarified. As public interest grew, reporters from The New York Times reached out to YU for comment, which they elected not to provide. The day before NYT published their article, YU gave The Commentator an $1850 reimbursement, along with a letter from the dean asserting that the university did not condone removing or disposing of any newspapers. The Observer’s missing copies were not mentioned in the article, nor were they reimbursed for the 1,200 missing newspapers. “It pains me to discover that Yeshiva only recognizes the discarding of student newspapers is wrong only when … reporters bring it to their attention, and not when their own students do,” said SCWSC President April Simon. The removal of issues was discontinued, but the controversy did not end there.
In the February 2000 issue, Jason Cyrulnik reported that the President’s Circle, a group that allocated funds to various student activities, had elected not to contribute to The Commentator in the upcoming semester. This was despite providing Stern’s paper, The Observer, with a “whopping $13,000” for new equipment. Cyrulnik attributed this discrepancy to The Commentator’s ongoing feud with the administration, claiming that stooping to “such punitive measures is quite simply immature.”
In the following edition, Louis Tuchman, co-chair of the Circle, responded sharply to Cyrulnik’s allegations, clarifying that the Circle was under no obligation to provide them with funds every semester, “and you can be sure we will not do so.” In addressing the funding discrepancy, he said that the money given to The Observer “only begins to redress” the historical funding imbalance between the two papers. As a final riposte, he criticized Cyrulnik for speculating at the Circle’s intentions without comment from any of the members.
When reviewing The Commentator of twenty years ago, it is difficult to tell how much of the editors’ criticism (and there is a lot of criticism) is founded, and how much of it is just angsty anti-administration posturing. The relationship between the two organizations in this era was extremely tenuous. This is perhaps best exemplified by Klein’s scathing March editorial, “Oh. You’re Just Stupid.” where he refers to administrators as “grumpy,” “Dumb and Dumber,” and “simply a few pennies short a dollar.” In addition, New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters suggested that Klein deliberately “tried to up the paper's metabolism by publishing a series of articles that were highly critical of the school administration.” Recognition of this enmity is key when considering the extent to which The Commentator is reliable here.
Commentator issues from this era often present biased accounts of events. The Columbia Scholastic Press Association reviewed The Commentator in 2002 and gave them an overall grade of C+, at least in part for their unreliable reporting. In their notes at the end, their very first criticism stated that “more effort should be placed on objective reporting on news pages. Many of the front-page stories reflect a definite bias … Front-page news stories must be objective! Opinion should be clearly labeled as such.” In addition, they received poor grades for accuracy, fairness and completeness. It seems like reliability was a recurring issue at this time.
In this case, however, it seems that their outrage was, if not justified, at least well-founded. The fact that reputable outside sources like The New York Times and the Board of Regents were involved, and that YU eventually reimbursed The Commentator, both indicate that YU did make some effort to censor the paper, an effort that would repeat itself in the coming months and years.
In fact, just a year prior, YU had confiscated and concealed vending machines owned by The New York Times. “I was very upset,” said Eric Schubert, then NYT’s sales manager for YU. “It was removed from inside the building, so I knew it had to be Facilities.” After several unsuccessful attempts to contact the relevant administrators, The Commentator gained access to a storage room where they found and photographed the missing machines. It is still unclear why Facilities objected to the machines in the first place, or why they did not contact The Times to have them removed properly. Despite their differences, the fact that these two newspaper confiscation controversies occurred within a month of each other is curious, and may bolster The Commentator’s reliability in this case.
The Commentator’s tumultuous relationship with YU’s administration is on full display in this saga, and highlights timely questions about what can and should be said. The era we currently find ourselves in is, like any other, mired in its own tumult, and The Commentator has not shied away from reporting on delicate situations. It is my hope that conscientious reporting remains a priority, and that gripes between the paper and faculty can be left in the past. Despite its challenges, the fight to preserve the paper’s autonomy was clearly not in vain, as it continues to respectfully tackle the issues and events that shape YU.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on May 8 to correct two articles attributed in error to Alex Traiman. The article published in the February 2000 issue was written by Jason Cyrulnik, and the editorial in the March 2000 issue was written by Aaron Klein.
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Photo Caption: An empty newspaper rack outside the library
Photo Credit: The Commentator