‘Memphis Flyer’ Chronicles ‘Helmsman’s’ First Amendment Battles

By August 17, 2012

Recently the Student Press Law Center publicized the struggles of The Daily Helmsman, the University of Memphis (UM) student newspaper which has had numerous wrangles with the university administration, many involving disputes over the release of public records (including for a rape committed on the UM campus). Most recently The Daily Helmsman saw its funding cut by $25,000 by UM’s Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee, which wasn’t shy about its reasons for doing so. According to the SPLC’s reporting:

Helmsman editors said they have been told by several committee members — including student government representatives and university administrators — that the cuts are due to growing displeasure with the newspaper’s content.

The SPLC, FIRE, and others have called out UM’s apparent retaliation against the newspaper, and Society of Professional Journalists President John Ensslin has harshly criticized the university’s behavior as well.  

This week, The Daily Helmsman‘s struggles at UM are described at length in a cover feature for the Memphis Flyer. Justin Fox Burks’ feature spans more than 3,000 words—and is eminently readable to the very last. The feature’s many accomplishments include placing The Daily Helmsman‘s $25,000 funding decrease in perspective. Yes, Burks notes, student activity funding at UM was facing a shortfall from last year-down from roughly $1.9 million to $1.6 million. But while The Daily Helmsman lost a third of its funding, others fared far better. For example, UM’s student government was given nearly $59,000 more funding than last year, and Burks points out that "[t]he budget approved for an SGA-sponsored orientation program called Frosh Camp jumped from $90,000 the previous year to $165,000." 

That alone gives off a stench. And when you consider the fact that the students in charge of funding groups on campus were apparently open about their displeasure with the paper’s content and noted that the paper’s content drove their decision to cut it for that reason—well, this is about as much of a slam dunk case for the paper as you could ask for. As the SPLC’s Frank LoMonte states:  

"At a public university, there can’t be a connection between an editor’s discretionary judgments and the level of funding," LoMonte said. "Those two things have to exist on separate sides of a wall. The First Amendment says the government can’t discriminate based on the speaker’s content or viewpoint. If you’re determining whether the paper gets funded based on content, you’re stepping over the First Amendment."

Fortunately, the bad press has perked up the ears of the administration. As the Flyer notes:

Although [UM President Shirley] Raines originally signed off on the committee’s budget cuts, she’s now opened an investigation into whether the committee violated the First Amendment or not. She’s assigned her executive assistant David Cox to oversee the investigation.

"We’re meeting with each of the committee members, and it will involve a representative from the Helmsman observing the process. We’ll start as soon as everyone is available," Cox said.

FIRE and many others will certainly be watching this investigation closely. In the meantime, give Justin Fox Burks’ excellent feature your time and attention, both of which are well-deserved.

Schools: University of Memphis Cases: University of Memphis: Student Newspaper Budget Cut Over Content