N.Y. college paper sues student government for denying funds

NEW YORK — A student publisher attending theState University of New York at Albany has filed a lawsuit against theuniversity and the student government association, claiming that his FirstAmendment rights were violated when the student government denied funding to hisconservative newspaper. Scott Barea, publisher of The CollegeStandard, said that the Central Council, a student government body thatallocates student activity fees at the university, denied funding to thenewspaper in February because members of the council disliked its content.According to a 2000 Supreme Court decision, universities that use studentactivity fees to fund campus organizations cannot withhold money based on theideology of the organizationBarea filed the suit on April 23 in U.S.District Court in Albany to demand that Central Council provide $4,950 to TheCollege Standard for the 2003-2004 school year and $550 for the May 2003issue of the paper, which Barea said could not be printed because of the lack ofmoney. Barea also is requesting that the Central Council provide the $5,862.05that he requested last year. In a June 9 hearing, District Judge ThomasJ. McAvoy denied Barea’s request that Central Council fund The CollegeStandard pending a final outcome of the case. But Barea said he remainsconfident that the court will eventually rule in his favor. “I amcompletely certain that we will prevail,” Barea said. “We arecommitted and prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court to enforce therule of law at the University of Albany.”Barea began publishingthe independent monthly newspaper in October 2002. He first went to the CentralCouncil in September, requesting $5,862.05 to print the newspaper for ninemonths. When the Central Council did not acknowledge the request, Barea beganpublishing The College Standard with money from private donations. InFebruary, the council voted on the newspaper’s budget request but reducedthe amount to $350. The money was denied by a 14-6 vote.SUNY at Albanystudents pay an $80 per semester fee to the Central Council, which goes towardthe student activity budget. Central Council is responsible for dividing the$1.7 million resulting fund among the 150 student organizations on campus. Barea said he believes the council refused to fund the paper because ofits conservative content. In The College Standard’s first issue,the front-page article criticized the New York Public Interest Research Group,which advocates environmental and consumer protection and is funded in part bythe Central Council. Throughout the year, Barea said he published articles thatwere critical of the administration, faculty and student government, includingan article that exposed alleged contract fraud committed by a member of theCentral Council.Members of the Central Council said they denied fundingto the newspaper because of its factual errors. “The paper has atendency to misquote people,” said Jamie MacNamara, last year’schairman of the Central Council who voted to stop funding the paper. “Ihave read where there have been lies printed in it aswell.”According to the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision inSouthworth v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System,universities using student activity fees to finance campus groups that engage inpolitical speech must remain viewpoint neutral, meaning that the school orstudent organizations cannot determine fee allocation based on the views of theorganization. Tom Marcelle, Barea’s lawyer, said theSouthworth decision made him confident that the court would rule inBarea’s favor. “The Supreme Court and the lower courts haveconsistently ruled that you cannot deny a speaker, in this case The CollegeStandard, access to a forum, in this case money, unless the decision makerhas some type of definite viewpoint neutral criteria to apply,” Marcellesaid. “There is no dispute. There is no viewpoint neutral criteria in thiscase.”Marcelle argued that it is the system at the university thatallows student government to have “unbridled discretion” that mustbe changed. He said there must be viewpoint neutral guidelines that the CentralCouncil is required to obey. According to the university’sattorney, Lewis Oliver, the Central Council did not discriminate against thenewspaper because of its viewpoint. Lewis said members of Central Council arenot required to give their reasons for their vote, but he added that he wasaware of several reasons the money was denied. “There were manypoints that were made in the debate, and none of them had to do with thepolitical orientation of the magazine,” Oliver said. “Some of themwere because of the nature of the articles. They were considered obscene by someof the members. And some people just personally didn’t like thepublisher.” Oliver said that other members of Central Councilargued that the newspaper should not be funded because it was new to the campusand expensive to publish. Out of the $1.7 million budget, Oliver said $3,500 wasavailable to clubs seeking money for the first time, and many council membersfelt that money should go to other organizations. Oliver said that hethought the content was questionable. “They [the newspaper] arecharacterizing it as conservative viewpoint, but there is a question about that.It has a lot of sex articles in it,” Oliver said. Oliver arguedthat the Central Council is now providing money to several other conservativegroups on campus, including another newspaper and a conservative studentassociation, and therefore was not discriminating against The CollegeStandard’s conservative ideology. He added that he did not believe thedenied funding was a form of censorship because Barea still published thenewspaper after the money was denied. Barea said he was able to publishseveral issues of The College Standard through private donations but itproved to be too expensive and he was forced to stop publication in May. Becausethe court did not grant an injunction forcing Central Council to fund the papernext year, Barea said he is not sure he will be able to continue printing in thefall. “My involvement in this situation is to defend not just myrights, but in fact, to defend the rights of everybody on this campus, includingliberals, conservatives, anarchists and libertarians,” Barea said.“If any one interest group takes control of the student government, thenwhat kind of university community do we have? Certainly not one about learningand understanding.”

Read previous coverage:

Read coverage of Southworth decision: