An Open Letter to the Cambridge University Student's Union Trustees

Students' Unions, not student censorship 4 March 2010

Dear Sirs,

We, the undersigned, would like to register our disapproval and anger at the circumstances which have led to the publication of last week’s issue of The Cambridge Student (TCS) Lent Issue 7, being delayed by two days. We all have an interest in and concern for the paper’s future, having served, or currently serving in, senior editorial roles. The seriousness of last week’s events have prompted us to write jointly to express our concerns, and with the intention of helping to prevent such events occurring again. We have three specific areas of concern which are laid out below.

CUSU Trustees blocking the publication of two articles

It is our understanding that on the evening of Wednesday February 24th, the CUSU Trustees insisted that two articles be withheld from last week’s issue. These articles were subsequently printed, somewhat altered, under the titles ‘CUSU accused of censorship’ (page 2) and ‘Students’ Unions, not student censorship’ (page 14). The rationale given by the CUSU Trustees was that they believed the material to be legally questionable, specifically with regard to employment law. The CUSU Trustees had not, we understand, at this time received formal legal advice. The Editor-in-Chief of TCS refused to publish the paper without the two articles, and so publication was delayed by two days until the Trustees could seek formal legal advice. That advice subsequently proved the Trustees’ concerns unfounded, and the paper was printed with the controversial articles.

The interference by the Trustees in the content of the paper is a serious step. We acknowledge that there will be some circumstances where the Editor of TCS may intend to publish legally questionable material, and that the Trustees have a duty of care to ensure that legally damaging material is not published by CUSU. In this case, the Trustees had not received formal legal advice, and their decision to insist the articles should not be printed was partly based on the unqualified opinions of sabbatical officers. Furthermore, the material which caused the initial concern, comments in the manifesto of Christopher Lillycrop, had been a matter of public record for two days. There was ample time available for the CUSU Trustees to seek a legal opinion on whether the manifesto in its then form could be printed, and therefore whether TCS could reprint the comments it contained. We believe that it should always be the position of CUSU to allow TCS to retain editorial independence unless they have a clear legal basis for interference. Absent of that, the judgement of the Editor should be paramount.

Dangerous precedent

As we have made clear above, the actions of the CUSU Trustees represent a serious step. They also establish a dangerous precedent for the relationship between CUSU and TCS. The editorial independence of TCS is enshrined in its Constitution, and has been affirmed in the public statements of all recent CUSU Coordinators (formerly Services Officers). We believe that the paper’s independence is an absolutely inviolable principle, key to its ability to perform a public service to the students of Cambridge, the respect in which it is held by the Cambridge community, and the prospects of attracting talented students to work for it. All of these would be at stake if TCS became known as the lackey of CUSU. Evidence of this happening can already be seen in the report by The Tab last week, which gives the impression of CUSU being willing and able to “censor” TCS when it likes.

As a first step towards rectifying the damage caused by the actions of the CUSU Trustees, we urge the Trustees to publicly acknowledge their mistake in insisting the articles should not be printed, and apologise to the paper and its readership for the unwarranted interference.

The relationship between TCS and CUSU

The events of last week constitute the latest instance in a long line of disagreements and conflicts between TCS editors and CUSU sabbatical officers. There have, for example, been past disagreements over the use of and access to the Publications Room, the amount of private and CUSU advertising which should be included in the paper and the role of CUSU staff in the paper. These differences are not the product of a healthy relationship between student union officers and investigative journalists holding them to account, but indicative of a breakdown in the governing structures that were intended to manage the relationship between publisher and editorially independent newspaper.

There are numerous institutional reasons why the situation should have deteriorated to this point, including, but not limited to:

The unclear definition of the role of the Board of Directors, dealing with design issues, complaints, appointments and editorial direction;

The ambiguous roles of the CUSU Coordinator and Business Manager on Board, being asked to represent the interests of both CUSU and the paper. Currently, too much relies on the good relationship between the TCS editorial team and the Business Manager, without the certainty and long-term sustainability of established procedures;

The lack of statutory authority to the TCS Constitution, it not being mentioned in the CUSU Constitution or Standing Orders;

The lack of clarity over the funding of TCS, a large proportion of TCS’ resources being supplied ‘in kind’ and not demonstrably budgeted for (eg pro rata salary of the Business Manager, rent of premises, IT equipment)

The lack of legal training for both the TCS Editors and the CUSU sabbatical officers, leading to confusion and uncertainty in situations such as the events of last week.

We understand that there have been efforts made since the end of Michaelmas Term 2009 to resolve some of these problems, and the wider CUSU-TCS relationship, through the establishment of a ‘CUSU-TCS Working Group’. However, the fact that this group has met only twice is indicative of the fact that very little time or energy has been put into working on this matter. It is absolutely imperative that urgent discussions be held between relevant parties and an agreement reached, to reduce the chances of similar events happening again, and processes put in place to limit the damage caused if they do. We urge the CUSU President and Coordinator, in consultation with the TCS Editorial Team and Board of Directors, to bring a motion to CUSU Council which would mandate action to be taken on this matter, and lay out a time frame to do so. We also recommend that any resolution be taken to CUSU Council for approval and any new structures created be laid out in the CUSU Standing Orders.

We have not taken the decision to write this letter lightly, and we hope that the seriousness of the intervention last week and the unified recommendations of the undersigned will prompt swift and urgent action to be taken on this matter.


Amy Blackburn, Co-Editor, Lent 2008

James Burton, Editor, Lent 2010

Alex Coke-Woods, Associate Editor, Michaelmas 2008

Anna Croall, Chair, Board of Directors

Carly Hilts, Co-Editor, Lent 2009

Matthew Horrocks, Editor, Michaelmas 2008

Beth McEvoy, Co-Editor, Michaelmas 2005

Shane Murray, Co-Editor, Lent 2009

Alice Palmer, Editor, Michaelmas 2006

Rob Palmer, Editor, Michaelmas 2007

Sven Palys, Co-Editor, Lent 2008

Elly Shepherd, Editor, Lent 2007

Katie Spenceley, News Editor, Michaelmas 2008

Jess Touschek, News Editor, Michaelmas 2009

Cat Watts, News Editor, Lent 2008

Pamela Welsh, Co-Editor, Michaelmas 2005

Thomas Williams, Editor, Michaelmas 2004; Co-Editor, Lent 2005

Joel Winton, Board of Directors

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