Student Newspaper Editors Sue Armstrong Atlantic State University

By July 1, 2008

Yesterday, three editors of Armstrong Atlantic State University’s (AASU’s) student newspaper, The Inkwell, filed suit against the university and its Student Government Association (SGA) for reducing the paper’s budget in the wake of complaints by the SGA about the paper’s content. AASU is a public university in Savannah, Georgia. Some of the details of the complaint had been made public by the paper in a March 21 editorial and in an open letter on April 11 to AASU president Thomas Z. Jones.

During the year, the paper ran a number of articles that were more critical of university policies and practices than the university was used to, according to the complaint. The complaint alleges that "Shortly after the start of the 2007-08 academic year, officials of AASU and of the AASU Student Government Association began a pattern of openly criticizing and second-guessing the content and viewpoint decisions made by the editors of The Inkwell." According to the complaint, this pattern included, among other things:

On September 20, 2007, Al Harris, AASU Director of Student Activities and SGA faculty advisor, told Mensing that he forb[ade] her to publish a critical article, which Harris had been told was forthcoming, about the University’s Department of Plant Operations regarding expired elevator permits.

On September 24, 2007, Robin Jones, AASU Assistant Director of Student Activities and CUB faculty advisor, complained to Mensing that the Inkwell had printed an article containing an interview with Jones without giving Jones an advance copy so that she could pre-approve its content before publication. [Italics added; Thomas Jones, Al Harris, and Vice President for Student Affairs Vicki McNeil are also named defendants.]

SGA members also complained to the paper that SGA events were not getting sufficient attention. When it came time for the SGA to review the paper’s proposed 2008-2009 budget in February, SGA Senator Chris Nowicki asked for copies of all issues that had been published during the academic year. Then, according to the open letter, "Over 95 percent of the budget hearing consisted of complaints about the content of the newspaper." The complaint states that "During the hearing, members of the Committee raised and discussed issues concerning the content of The Inkwell, and in fact brought to hearing a stack of back issues of The Inkwell to point out specific instances of content and viewpoint with which they disagreed."

Ultimately The Inkwell had its net funding reduced by $4,260 from the previous year’s budget of $69,500the only student organization to have its funding reduced (other than Student Photographic Services, which apparently will cease to exist). School representatives have argued that the reduction in Inkwell funding was due simply to a new ad policy whereby the SGA was being charged for its advertisementsthe SGA apparently would be recouping its extra costs this waybut the Inkwell had already budgeted an increase of $10,500 in ad revenue, which also had been withheld from the Inkwell’s annual allocation. The overall reduction in funding was actually $14,760, a large percentage decrease. According to the open letter,

[The SGA's] claim that us charging them for display ads next year is the reason they cut our overall budget is a pretext for the real reason they cut the student activity funding.

The First Amendment violations here, if the allegations are true, are many. Forbidding the paper to publish controversial or negative information, calling for prior review, investigating and criticizing the paper’s editorial choices as part of a budget hearing, and then cutting funds on a shabby pretext provide a terrible education in the abuse of power. FIRE will report on the next developments in this disturbing case.