The Student Press Law Center is reporting on a ridiculous situation at the University of Memphis. Memphis’s student-run Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee (SAFAC) has voted to reduce the funding for the student newspaper The Daily Helmsman by $25,000, or one-third of its previous funding. Here’s the kicker:
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.
If this is true, it represents a grave First Amendment violation. If the University of Memphis, a public institution, wanted to reduce funding for any student group, it would have to comply with the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217 (2000), requiring viewpoint neutrality in funding decisions. Writing for the majority in Southworth, Justice Kennedy held:
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.
If the reason for deeply reducing funding for The Daily Helmsman is because petty SAFAC bureaucrats dislike its content, then they are violating the First Amendment rights of The Daily Helmsman. Whether a salaried administrator of the University of Memphis is the censor or whether it is a student, it is still illegal, as either would be acting as an agent of the university and thus would be bound by the university’s First Amendment obligations. It is no defense that the perpetrator of flagrantly unconstitutional conduct is a student. Students on SAFAC boards are given incredible responsibility, and they have the duty to act with integrity and respect First Amendment rights.
One potential defendant if a First Amendment lawsuit were to arise might be Tyler DeWitt, the former SAFAC president, who, in conceding that SAFAC made a content-based inquiry into funding The Daily Helmsman, construed the purpose of the newspaper as follows: "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."
This statement is both false and ironic. It is false, because by challenging SAFAC policies The Daily Helmsman is absolutely preparing journalists to serve the critical-reflective function in American civic life, which is their purpose. It is ironic, because SAFAC seems to be preparing would-be tyrants for a career in the administrations at institutions of higher learning.