Editors sue Ga. college over cuts to student paper's budget

GEORGIA — Student editors at Armstrong Atlantic StateUniversity’s student newspaper, The Inkwell, filed a lawsuit Mondayagainst the university, claiming the school stifled their right to free speechwhen the paper’s budget was slashed in March.

The civil suit, filed in the Superior Court of Chatham County in Georgia,said the 2008-09 budget cut was in retaliation for a more aggressive andcritical approach to covering the university’s administration.

According to the complaint, the budget reduction “was motivatedwholly or in substantial part by the disagreement of AASU officials with thecontent and viewpoint of The Inkwell newspaper.”

In March, The Inkwell was allotted $39,740 from student activityfees, a reduction of $14,760 from the year before.

Angela Mensing, former editor in chief of The Inkwell and aplaintiff in the case, said that the reduction was a way to get back at thenewspaper.

“The university didn’t like our content choices, theydidn’t like the stories and they didn’t like the way we covered thestudent government. It wasn’t how they wanted to be covered,”Mensing said.

During a Feb. 16 budget hearing, Mensing said, members of the StudentGovernment Association Finance Committee criticized the paper’s coverageof SGA events. She said the meeting was just one example where it seemed theuniversity was using the newspaper’s content as a reason to cut thepaper’s budget.

The complaint asserts that the budget cut coincided with an Inkwell

investigation into the university’s failure to fully satisfy alldisclosure obligations under the Clery Act, a federal law that gives the publicaccess to certain campus crime information.

In addition to getting funding from student fees, the newspaper alsoreceives money by selling space for advertisements. That amount, which wasprojected in March for the upcoming year, rose from $15,000 to $25,500.

The university set The Inkwell’s total budget, combining what thenewspaper will receive from student fees and advertisement space, at $65,240. That is a net reduction of $4,260 from the 2007-08 year.

Francisco Duque, spokesperson for the university, said university had”no comment” on the lawsuit.

Gerald Weber, an attorney representing editors at The Inkwell, saidthe university’s actions were out of step with the First Amendment.

“The Armstrong Atlantic student journalists were taught the wronglesson when a university responded to good and critical journalism by cuttingthe funding for the paper,” Weber wrote in an e-mail to the Student PressLaw Center.

Weber took the case through the SPLC’s Attorney Referral Network.

The suit alleges violations of the rights of three current and former

Inkwell editors – Mensing, Kristen Alonso and Brian Anderson – under thefederal and state constitutions. The complaint asks the court to restorestudent activity fee funding to its 2007-08 level.

Chris Nowicki, an SGA Finance Committee member, and Al Harris, director ofstudent activities and one of the defendants in the lawsuit, referred all of theSPLC’s questions to Duque and the university.