FIRE to VMI: Hands Off the Independent Student Newspaper

by James A. Bacon

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has asked the Virginia Military Institute to refrain from pressuring an independent student newspaper, The Cadet, to change its editorial stances.

“Cadet staff have faced interference from VMI leadership, including pressure to make the paper’s content more flattering to the Institute, suppression of its distribution, and demands that the student staff stop working with alumni on publication efforts,” wrote Anne Marie Tamburro and Mike Hiestand with FIRE, a national organization that focuses on campus free speech issues, in FIRE Letter to VMI.

“VMI’s cumulative acts seeking to bend the paper to administrative pressure and interfering with its staff’s activities squarely contradict the Institute’s obligations under the First Amendment, which demands that VMI respect the editorial independence of The Cadet,” FIRE said.

VMI spokesman Bill Wyatt said that FIRE did not fact-check the allegations with VMI contained in the letter before sending it. “They’re taking Bob Morris’ word as gospel,” he said, referring to VMI alumnus Bob Morris, who advises the newspaper and heads the foundation that supports it financially. VMI is working on a response, he added.

Correction: The original version of this story said that FIRE did not fact-check the allegations in the story. It has been corrected to say that FIRE did not fact-check with VMI.

The FIRE letter comes at a tumultuous time for the administration of Superintendent Cedric T. Wins, who has been enacting sweeping changes to the culture of the military institute in the wake of charges of “relentless racism” by The Washington Post and findings of racism by an outside study commissioned by former Governor Ralph Northam. VMI has distanced itself from its Confederate heritage, made changes to the Honor Code drum-out ceremony,  and implemented Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training. Dissenting alumni have campaigned to roll back reforms they believe threaten the integrity of the Honor Code, Rat Line, and other traditions that define the VMI experience.

Against this backdrop of controversy, first-year enrollment at VMI plummeted by 25% this year. At a Board of Visitors meeting Tuesday, Wins blamed a trend of falling college enrollment nationally, a “VMI brand reputation tarnished in various media outlets,” and “ideological differences among a divided alumni base.”

The Cadet operated as a student-run newspaper at VMI from 1907 until 2016. A group of students and alumni revived The Cadet in 2021, publishing at least two editions each month with support from The Cadet Foundation, a nonprofit corporation created to support The Cadet. The foundation is headed by Bob Morris, a retired army colonel who has played an active role in combating what he considers the libeling of the Institute. According to FIRE, “the newspaper’s student staff members hold exclusive editorial control over the decisions and content of the paper.”

The VMI Alumni Agencies have openly disavowed the newspaper. In a May 2021 statement, the organization charged that “a single alumnus was the driving force behind this publication.” It also stated (in bold face), “The Cadet newspaper is in no way affiliated with or authorized by the Virginia Military Institute, the Corps of Cadets, or the VMI Alumni Agencies.”

Most Cadet articles focus on student activities, but a few articles have been critical of the VMI administration. The administration has pushed back aggressively. States the FIRE letter:

The Cadet has on several occasions faced intimidation from VMI administrators to publish content more flattering to the college. On July 2o, 2o21, several Cadet staff and alumnus mentor Colonel Bob Morris met with you (Commandant Bogart) to present a plan for The Cadet’s operations for the upcoming academic year. During this meeting, you voiced disapproval of the paper’s content, including a survey on faculty wearing military uniforms, and asked the paper not to report anything that would challenge Washington Post journalist Ian Shapira’s coverage of racism and sexual assault at VMI. You also recommended the paper report on initiatives implemented by your office and suggested doing so would boost the paper’s circulation. Further communication with VMI administrators suggested that requested administrative support for the paper’s distribution would be available only if The Cadet were to publish content that “aligns with VMI’s initiatives.”

This spring, Cadet editors faced pressure to publish an op-ed from the VMI administration refuting an article the paper ran about the Institute’s counseling center. Following criticism from administrators about the piece, Cadet editors maintained the reporting in the paper was accurate but entertained the option of publishing VMI”s response. On April 28, Colonel Bill Wyatt, VMI Director of Communications & Marketing, emailed The Cadet’s then-editor-in-chief James Mansfield urging him to publish the op-ed in full. … [Wyatt] suggested the reporters were acting unethically, even invoking a recent suicide, to pressure The Cadet to publish VMI’s statement. …

The FIRE letter also cites multiple instances in which VMI staff interfered with the distribution of the student newspaper, including one in which copies of the newspaper were removed from a location in front of the barracks after a graduation ceremony and placed in a box of discarded books.

In a meeting with Cadet staff, VMI General Counsel Patrick O’Leary “largely refused to acknowledge the paper as student-run, instead erroneously maintaining it was an alumni-run paper,” states the FIRE letter. “O’Leary later doubled down on this assertion in an October 26, 2021 letter to Cadet Foundation Secretary Debora Hansen, in which he said VMI’s administration would not recognize The Cadet as it currently operates.”

FIRE continued: “A capper came on February 3, 2022, when VMI’s Office of the Chief of Staff denied on the Institute’s website that The Cadet, as of 2021, was a continuation of the historical paper and accused it of being alumni-run.”

“The influence VMI has exerted over The Cadet with regard to its distribution, content, and operations reflects a serious intrusion on the the newspaper’s independence,” FIRE said. “While your administration has stated its intention is not to control the content of The Cadet, the current pattern of unconstitutional overreach into the paper’s dealings demonstrates otherwise.”

The letter calls upon VMI to provide the same “support and accommodations” due other student groups, and to refrain from “unduly pressuring” The Cadet to alter its editorial content.