We’ve been providing updates the last few weeks about a troubling case at the University of Memphis (UM), whose student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, recently had a third of its previous year’s student activity fee allocation cut (from $75,000 to $50,000) in what appears to be a clear case of retaliation against the paper as a result of the funders’ displeasure with its content.
Spurred by heavy criticism of the funding cuts, UM President Shirley Raines has launched an investigation into the matter. Former Student Government Association President Tyler DeWitt, who had a hand in the funding decision, is also keeping mum after previously going on record with his content-based criticisms of the newspaper to multiple outlets. Last Friday, FIRE wrote to UM President Shirley C. Raines, asking the university to reverse the funding cuts and reminding it that viewpoint-based funding decisions like the one apparently made against the Helmsman are unconstitutional. As our letter points out, it isn’t as if the evidence of discrimination against the newspaper is scant, thanks to former UM Student Government Association President (SGA) Tyler DeWitt. We wrote:
DeWitt has been critical of the Helmsman, as well as open about the factors contributing to the decision to reduce its funding-including those based on its content. As The Commercial Appeal reported:
"We’re looking at content in the sense of, this fee is to be used for student activities. And the Helmsman is not promoting student activities," said former SGA President Tyler DeWitt, who sat on the allocation committee. "We’re simply saying that some things should exist, and they’re not meeting the objectives of what the fee is for."
These remarks are consistent with remarks DeWitt made to the Student Press Law Center:
"We sat down with them and asked, ‘Is the purpose of the newspaper to promote student activities and report on things going on school, or is it to serve as a training tool for journalism?’" he said. "By what we could gather, the newspaper is more of a tool to help journalists prepare for their professional career. In the purview of what the student activity fee is meant to cover, we didn’t think the newspaper met the standards of what the committee required."
The Helmsman is one of the student organizations receiving its funding from UM’s Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee (SAFAC). Among SAFAC’s seven members, per UM policy, are two representatives from the SGA, including its president, making it the only organization that is represented on the body from which it requests its funding. Perhaps coincidentally (or, you know, not coincidentally), SGA was nearly alone in seeing its student fee allocation increased from last year—by nearly $59,000, an increase by a third of its $175,000 allocation for 2011–2012.
Press attention to this case has been high, and FIRE is one of several organizations to offer public support to the Helmsman; supporting statements are collected at the support website Free The Daily Helmsman.
Hopefully, given the investigation, UM is wising up to its apparently unconstitutional actions against the Helmsman. DeWitt has gone quiet after his incriminating remarks to SPLC and The Commercial Appeal. After being so open previously, The Memphis Flyer by contrast reported only that, "DeWitt told the Flyer he’d been advised by the university’s legal department not to talk about the budget cuts." Sure sounds like damage control to me!
We hope that UM finishes its investigation promptly and remembers its First Amendment obligations as a public university. Be sure to check back for more on this case here at The Torch.
UPDATE 9/1/2012: Yesterday, President Raines announced in a statement that the paper’s budget has been restored. President Raines stated that the university’s investigation concluded that the paper’s content "may have been a factor" in the decision to cut the paper’s funding.