Student paper sues Colo. university board for approving cut in student-fee allocation

COLORADO — Three editors of a student newspaper at the University of Northern Colorado have filed a lawsuit against each member of the university’s board of trustees “to vindicate their freedom of speech rights.”

Plaintiffs Heath Urie, editor in chief, Christopher Marcheso, managing editor, and Andrew Rosenthal, news editor, allege that the board approved a recommendation to reduce of The Mirror‘s funding by 40 percent because of the newspaper’s content — specifically articles that were critical of the board and the university’s Student Representative Council.

The lawsuit was filed July 14 in a federal court in Denver.

The SRC recommends to the university’s board of trustees how to allocate the student fee money among student groups. The board has the power to modify the SRC’s recommendations.

The editors’ lawyer, James Hubbell, sent a letter to the board at its last two meetings clarifying the editors’ position that the cut in funding violated the First Amendment.

“With knowledge of the allegations and evidence of viewpoint discrimination, the board of trustees failed to articulate a rationale for the funding cut, failed to address accusations of viewpoint discrimination, and failed to modify or nullify the retaliatory funding cut proposed by the SRC,” the plaintiffs’ complaint states.

“The problem is that none of them stepped up to use their positions of power responsibly” to change the budget cut, Urie said.

The plaintiffs contend that the board cut the newspaper’s budget as “a warning to The Mirror on how to style its future content.”

In 1973 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit stated in Joyner v. Whiting, “Censorship of constitutionally-protected expression cannot be imposed by withdrawing financial support, or asserting any other form of censorship oversight based on an institution’s power of the purse.” The Colorado Supreme Court cited the case approvingly in a 1984 decision.

Members of the board of trustees were unavailable for comment.

The board has also proposed a bid process for the student newspaper through a request for purchase, which would open the bid to any interested party. The newspaper awarded the bid would get a subsidy from the university.

This lawsuit is the second the newspaper has recently filed against a university governing body. Three editors — Urie, Marcheso and former editor in chief Jessica Perciante — filed a civil suit against the student government in April 2004, alleging the body violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law numerous times during the 2003-2004 school year. This case has a court hearing scheduled for Aug. 11.

Before bringing the suit against the SRC, The Mirror ran articles about the student government engaging in illegal closed meetings and the arrest of one of its vice presidents for driving under the influence.

The Mirror is published by the Student Media Corporation, a nonprofit corporation, and receives a substantial part of its budget from student fees.

It costs $47,000 to print the publication each year, and in the last fiscal year it received $37,500 in student fees, the plaintiffs’ complaint stated.

While giving itself an increase of $11,000, the SRC cut The Mirror’s funding by $15,349 to $22,151 for fiscal year 2004-2005. The SRC gave another student group $23,000 in excess of what it had requested.

Jory Taylor, an SRC vice president and student member of the board of trustees, introduced the proposal in the SRC to cut The Mirror’s funding. He said it is his priority to see that student fees are being allocated to where the need is, state the SRC’s minutes from the April 7 meeting.

Taylor argued that the newspaper was “double-dipping” into student fees — getting money directly from student fees, and indirectly from student groups using their student fees to pay for advertisements in the newspaper.

Three groups representing minority students asked the council not to cut The Mirror’s funding, the minutes state.

During the meeting at which the funding was cut, “SRC vice president Chris Porter objected to The Mirror’s content and urged SRC members to vote to cut the paper’s funding for that reason,” states the plaintiffs’ complaint.

The plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that the defendants’ actions violate the First Amendment, a restoring of The Mirror‘s student-fee funding to the level requested before the reduction and attorney’s fees.

Read previous coverage