Student editors sue university trustees over funding cut

COLORADO — Three editors of a student newspaper are suingtheir university’s board of trustees, claiming that the board cut thenewspaper’s funding because of its content.Editor in chief HeathUrie, managing editor Christopher Marcheso and news editor Andrew Rosenthalallege that the University of Northern Colorado Board of Trustees approved arecommendation to reduce of The Mirror’s funding by 40 percentbecause of articles that were critical of the board and the university’sStudent Representative Council. 

The editors filed the lawsuit againsteach member of the university’s board of trustees July 14 in a federalcourt in Denver “to vindicate their freedom of speech rights,” theeditors’ lawsuit states. The SRC recommends to the university’sboard of trustees how to allocate the student fee money among student groups.The board has the power to modify the SRC’s recommendations. 

Theeditors’ lawyer, James Hubbell, circulated a letter to the board at itslast two meetings clarifying the editors’ position that the recommended cut infunding violated the First Amendment.

“With knowledge of theallegations and evidence of viewpoint discrimination, the board of trusteesfailed to articulate a rationale for the funding cut, failed to addressaccusations of viewpoint discrimination, and failed to modify or nullify theretaliatory funding cut proposed by the SRC,” the editors’ lawsuitstates.

The editors contend that the board cut the newspaper’sbudget as “a warning to The Mirror on how to style its futurecontent.”In 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuitstated in Joyner v. Whiting, “Censorship ofconstitutionally-protected expression cannot be imposed by withdrawingfinancial support, or asserting any other form of censorship oversight based onan institution’s power of the purse.” 

The Colorado Supreme Courtcited the case approvingly in a 1984 decision.Members of the board oftrustees did not respond to requests for comment.This lawsuit is thesecond the newspaper has recently filed against a university governing body.Three editors — Urie, Marcheso and former editor in chief JessicaPerciante — filed a civil suit against the student government in April,alleging the body violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law numerous times duringthe 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 body engaging in illegal closedmeetings and the arrest of one of its vice presidents for driving under theinfluence.The Mirror is published by the Student MediaCorporation, a nonprofit corporation, and it receives a substantial part of itsbudget from student fees. The Mirror has a yearly-operatingbudget of about $250,000, said Paula Cobler, The Mirror’s generalmanager. 

It costs $47,000 to print the publication each year, and in the lastfiscal year, it received $37,500 in student fees, the editors’ lawsuitstated. While giving itself an increase of $11,000, the SRC cut TheMirror’s funding by $15,349 to $22,151 for fiscal year 2004-2005. TheSRC gave another student group $23,000 in excess of what it hadrequested.

Jory Taylor, an SRC vice president and student member of theboard of trustees, introduced the proposal in the SRC to cut TheMirror’s funding. He said it is his priority to see that student feesare being allocated to where the need is, state the SRC’s minutes from theApril 7 meeting. 

Taylor argued that the newspaper was“double-dipping” into student fees — getting money directlyfrom student fees, and indirectly from student groups using their student feesto pay for advertisements in the newspaper.Three groups representingminority students asked the council not to cut The Mirror’sfunding, the minutes state.

During the meeting at which the funding wascut, “SRC vice president Chris Porter objected to TheMirror’s content and urged SRC members to vote to cut thepaper’s funding for that reason,” states the editors’lawsuit.The editors seek a declaratory judgment that thedefendants’ actions violate the First Amendment, a restoring of TheMirror’sstudent-fee funding to the level requested before thereduction and attorney’s fees.

In a separate development, the boardhas also proposed a bid process for the student newspaper where interestedparties would submit bids to be the university’s newspaper. Instead ofThe Mirror being given fees, that money would go the party awarded thebid as subsidy from the university.The board has not yet voted to putthe paper up for bid, but it is being considered, said board president DickMonfort. 

Ron Lambdin, the university’s legal counsel, is working on therequest for proposal, a type of bid document used to solicit proposals fromprospective sellers of products or services.Cobler said Lambdin has metwith the newspaper’s board and is writing the request for proposal in away that favors The Mirror, but he could not guarantee that the newspaperwould get the bid. 

“Quite frankly, we’re still unsurewhat’s going to happen to our newspaper,” Urie said. “Worstcase scenario, we might not exist this time next year. It all depends on howLambdin writes this request.”

The board has not commented on why itis looking into the bid process, but Urie said he hopes it is to remove thestudent government from The Mirror’s funding process. Urie,however, also does not want the board to control the newspaper’s fundingeither.

He would like for both the SRC and the board to be removed frommaking budget decisions for the newspaper to bring stability to the fundingprocess.

He said he does not want to worry about negative coverage of theboard affecting the newspaper’s finances. 

“It scares thehell out of me,” Urie said. “I don’t think any newspapershould have to worry about what it prints as long as it isaccurate.”