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Senators Voice Support For University In Ribbon Flap

April 04, 2002
By: Matt Williams
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee voiced concerns over $500,000 cut to the University of Missouri's budget over a patriotic ribbon policy at KOMU-TV.

Senator John Russell said he strongly opposes the policy, which prohibits MU students at the university-owned NBC affiliate from wearing the American flag or memorial ribbons while on camera. However, Russell said he thinks the university should not be punished for the policy.

The House voted Wednesday to cut $500,000 from the state appropriation for the UM System in protest of the policy issued Sep. 17 by KOMU News Director Stacey Woelfel in an e-mail to student reporters.

"...our news broadcasts are not the place for personal statements of support for any cause--no matter how deserving the cause seems to be," Woelfel's memorandum said. "This includes the little red, white, and blue ribbons that a lot of people are sporting these days. Our job is to deliver the news as free from outside influences as possible."

"What you do on your own time is up to you, though I would urge you to consider the fact that you are always 'on the clock' in terms of being known as a reporter and a representative of the station," the memo said.

Russell calls the policy a "drastic mistake," but said the legislature shouldn't take away university funding.

"I think the guy's unpatriotic," Russell said of Woelfel. "But I'm not going to stoop to take $500,000 out of it."

"We don't want to be too punitive every time somebody makes a mistake."

Russell heads the committee which will handle the state's budget when it reaches the Senate, and would have significant clout over any restoration of funding.

Columbia Senator Ken Jacob said he would try to restore funding to the university when the budget is sent to the Senate. He said he disagreed with Woelfel's decision, but said getting funding for MU is always his top priority.

However, Jacob said the issue is much broader than Woelfel's ribbon policy. He said there are historically poor relations between legislators and the School of Journalism's news outlets, including the Columbia Missourian, and many feel the school has an air of arrogance.

"I don't see Stacey's issue with 9/11 as one incident," Jacob said. "It's the straw that broke the camel's back. The issue is much broader."

Representatives of the UM System have said little, except to show support for the School of Journalism and reiterate desires for a resolution.

"We are prepared to let the legislative process work," UM System President Manuel Pacheco said. "We will continue to visit with individual legislators and listen to their concerns."

UM System spokesman Joe Moore said he was not aware of any discussion regarding the status of Woelfel's position or any others in the university that could be affected by the cut.

KOMU is owned by MU but receives no taxpayer funds for its operation. The federal license to operate KOMU is owned by the Board of Curators. KOMU administration falls under the administration of the campus. KOMU's news programming is produced by MU's school of journalism in cooperation with KOMU's management.

MU journalism professor Charles Davis, who also the directs MU's of Freedom of Information Center said he opposes the legislature's actions.

"To cut funding and blame it on anyone's ideology is wrong-headed," Davis said. "It's tantamount to thought-police and I find that truly frightening."