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Funding Threats as a Censorship Tactic Against Student Newspapers

In celebration of Free Press Week, FIRE is taking a look this week at the law surrounding student newspapers and other media outlets on college and university campuses, as well as the common issues they face in exercising their freedom of the press.

One such issue is universities' use of the threat of denial of funding as a way to censor student newspapers. Unfortunately, we see this all the time at FIRE, despite the fact that such punitive action in response to the content or viewpoints expressed in a student publication is a clear violation of the paper's First Amendment rights (for public universities) and a violation of the school's own commitments to free speech (for most private universities).

Last year at the University of Memphis, for example, the student newspaper The Daily Helmsman saw its student activity fee allocation slashed by one-third (from $75,000 to $50,000) in direct response to the paper's content. Not only did the university's Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee (SAFAC) vote to reduce the paper's funding, several SAFAC members—including student government members and university administrators—boldly told the paper's editors that the move was due to growing displeasure with its content. As we informed university president Shirley Raines in a letter sent last August, such retaliation was a crystal-clear violation of the public university's First Amendment obligations, and contradicted on-point Supreme Court precedent:

[T]he Supreme Court has made clear that universities may not discriminate in the funding of student organizations through student activity fees on the basis of an organization's viewpoint. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 233 (2000) ("When a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others."); Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 836 (1995) ("For the University, by regulation, to cast disapproval on particular viewpoints of its students risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the Nation's intellectual life, its college and university campuses.").


In Rosenberger and Southworth, the Court held that when a public university decides to use student fees to fund a multiplicity of independent student groups, as UM has done here, each student group retains its status as a private party expressing its personal viewpoint. Unlike an "official" university publication, student newspapers like The Daily Helmsman are independent organizations whose speech is fully protected by the First Amendment. Accordingly, the university and its agents cannot censor or punish such publications on the basis of content, even those which receive student fees, any more than the government can censor The New York Times.

We reminded the university that it had a non-delegable duty to uphold the First Amendment rights of its students, and urged it to step in and correct the unconstitutional actions of its agents in SAFAC. Thankfully and to its credit, the University of Memphis did just that, restoring the full funding of the newspaper just a week after receiving FIRE's letter. While The Daily Helmsman's ordeal had a positive ending, it serves as a reminder that student newspapers too often have their financial viability threatened in an attempt to control their expression.

The same can be said of The West Georgian at the University of West Georgia, which in 2009 saw its annual budget cut by $4,500 by the Student Activity Fee Budget Allocation Committee (SAFBA) after the student newspaper reported on accusations of corruption in the university's Student Government Association (SGA). SAFBA—which, like SAFAC at the University of Memphis, was composed of both students and university staff—opined, for instance, that the paper "has not been responsive this past year to the needs of the students." While facing a reduction in its annual budget was bad enough, things actually got worse for The West Georgian. In response to a satire of fraternity life printed by the paper, SGA President James Alan Webster authored a bill calling for the freezing of its funds "due to overwhelming public opinion of the adverse [e]ffects of published material on the subjects of diversity, unity, and general welfare of the student body." Amazingly, the SGA passed Webster's bill.

Fortunately, the news got better from there. After FIRE intervened on the paper's behalf, the university ordered SAFBA to rehear the paper's budget request, this time without reference to its content. From there, SAFBA decided not to cut the paper's budget by the $4,500 previously indicated, and even doled out an extra $3,600 for additional requests that were now approved. This stirring victory for freedom of the press on campus was one that both FIRE and The West Georgian celebrated, and for good reason—it was an effective rebuttal against the idea that a university or its agents could brazenly censor and punish a vital student media outlet simply for doing its job well and informing students about important campus matters.

And yet, the illiberal tactics faced by The Daily Helmsman and The West Georgian have been repeated on too many campuses over the years. From the University of North Florida to Fairfield University to Montclair State University, FIRE has seen a number of universities and their agents use the power of the purse strings to attempt to shut down speech on the part of student journalists that they find controversial, uncomfortable, or just plain inconvenient. Student newspapers that find themselves in similar straits should know that FIRE is always ready to assist them in the exercise of their free press rights, and to get their funding denials reversed.

Please check back for more posts this week on The Torch in celebration of Free Press Week. And be sure to sign up for our free webinar with the Student Press Law Center this Wednesday, January 30!

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