TENNESSEE — The student newspaper at theUniversity of Memphis is protesting a budget cut it believes to be a directresponse to the past year’s content.
Theschool’s seven-member Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee voted near theend of the school year to slash The Daily Helmsman’s budget by 33 percent. The newspaper will receive$50,000 from student activity fees this publication year, as opposed to $75,000last year.
Whilethe bulk of the Helmsman’s funding comes from advertising revenue, a smallercontribution from student activity fees has traditionally covered printing anddistribution costs. This year, the newspaper requested $80,000 in student fees— $5,000 more than it generally receives.
If thenormal funding of $75,000 is not restored, Editor-in-Chief Chelsea Boozer saidthe Helmsmanmay be forced to scale back on its page count or reduce its frequency ofpublication.
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.
In onemeeting with Boozer, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean ofStudents Stephen Petersen summarized some of the committee’s complaints.
“Ican’t begin to tell you the examples [of articles in the newspaper] that cameup … that seem to have very little relevance or that seemed to touch very,very few students on the campus,” he said, according to a recording of themeeting provided by Boozer.
Petersen,who chairs the allocation committee, acknowledged in the meeting that somecommittee members had even supported providing no funding for the Helmsmanat all.
Petersenwas out of the office for the week and wrote in an email that he wasunavailable for comment as of press time.
At thebeginning of the budgeting process this year, the committee had $1,568,456available to allocate — a slight decrease from the $1,635,875 available at thesame time last year.
Whilemost groups are facing a slight budget cut, the Helmsman’s 33-percent reduction is tiedwith the school’s art museum as the organization facing the largest percentagedrop in funding from student fees.
FormerStudent Government Association President Tyler DeWitt, who sat on theallocation committee before graduating this spring, said the funding decreasewas a financial necessity, along with the fact that the Helmsmanhas not beenserving the interests of the student body.
“Wesat down with them and asked, ‘Is the purpose of the newspaper to promotestudent activities and report on things going on school, or is it to serve as atraining tool for journalism?” he said. “By what we could gather, the newspaperis more of a tool to help journalists prepare for their professional career. Inthe purview of what the student activity fee is meant to cover, we didn’t thinkthe newspaper met the standards of what the committee required.”
WhileDeWitt denied that the Helmsman’s content had anything to do with the decision, he said hepersonally has been disappointed with some of the newspaper’s coverage.
Amongother things, SGA representatives have expressed disappointment that the Helmsman has covered some campus eventsafter they take place, rather than writing preview pieces so the student bodyis aware of the events in advance.
In onecase, they were upset that the Helmsman chose to send a reporter to cover breaking news of anon-campus rape, rather than reporting on a talk by former presidentialcandidates Fred Thompson and Howard Dean.
Inanother instance, Petersen and some SGA members took issue with a profile pieceon the school’s Marxist Student Union,citing the club’s lack of broad appeal to the student body.
Boozerbelieves the fact that these content-related complaints took center-stage inthe budgeting process makes this a clear First Amendment violation.
“Thefact that they cut our funding because they didn’t like our content isintimidation for us not to report the things they don’t want us to report,” shesaid. “The Helmsman is serving as a valuable information source for the students,and any direct influence on our content could be a dangerous change to that.”
Thisis not the first time Boozer has found herself at the center of a controversybetween the newspaper and the university.
OnMarch 28, Boozer wrote an open letter to the university’s police director, criticizing his department for not beingtransparent with the campus community following the alleged rape of a student.
Thatsame day, a university police officer filed two separate incident reportsagainst Boozer and a fellow reporter. The first report alleged that Boozer had trespassed at the school’s police departmentheadquarters after hours by deliberately causing a disturbance after she wastold that a police official had left for the evening. The second report claimed she forced her way into several student residences,refusing their demands to leave.
Boozerstaunchly denied all of the allegations in a letter to University PresidentShirley Raines, providing evidence to refute allof the officer’s claims. The university has not pursued any disciplinary actionagainst her.
“Ithink the attack on me shows a larger picture of administrative officials’disapproval of the newspaper,” Boozer said.
Helmsman General Manager Candy Justice, who has been with thenewspaper for 20 years, believes that “the funding situation is bad enough, butto attack a student who they should be nothing but proud of is the worst thingthat I’ve seen here.”
WhileBoozer is unsure if there is any connection between the newspaper’s coverage ofthe rape and the budget cut, she believes the funding decision is “just anotherexample of how our administration is disapproving of the Helmsman.”
StudentPress Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte, who wrote a letter ofconcern on Boozer’s behalf following thepolice reports, agreed.
“Youcan’t have student newspaper editors second guessing themselves based onpleasing a governmental budget writer,” he said. “When you condition governmentfunding on content choices, that raises First Amendment red flags.”
LoMonteadded that, by acknowledging the presence of coverage complaints in itsdecision-making process, the allocation committee committed a “smoking-gunFirst Amendment violation.”
“Whenyou admitted that you punished the newspaper for editors’ content decisions,then it’s game over,” he said.
Theschool, however, disagreed.
In astatement, the university claimed that the Helmsman was not singled out or treateddifferently than any other organization.
“Basedon the information we have, the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee cutfunding to several organizations this spring,” the university said. “Since thatis the case, we see no legal issues resulting from the committee’s decisions.”
Whilethe committee’s decision on the initial budget was final, the Helmsman will have an opportunity toreceive more funding at a supplementary budget hearing for all student groupsin October.
CurrentSGA President Russell Born, who will be involved in the October budgetallocation process, said he will evaluate “how well different organizations aremeeting students’ needs” in deciding who will get additional funds.
“I’veheard complaints that some student groups’ needs aren’t being met by the Helmsman,” he said, referencing thenewspaper’s decision not to cover certain campus events. “We need students toknow about the big events on campus. I would hope that every group would beabout making this campus the best it can possibly be.”
Forits part, the Helmsman has begun reaching out to its alumni community to marshallsupport leading up to the October vote.
Helmsman alumnus Jim Willis, who is helping to lead this effort, saidthere is an undeniable cause and effect relationship between the newspaper’scoverage of controversial issues and its current budgetary situation.
“Itseems like a slam dunk prior restraint, prior review issue,” he said. Thecommittee “doesn’t understand the difference between journalism and publicrelations, and they want the student newspaper to become another publicrelations arm of the university. It’s unfathomable to consider how you’d followthat logic.”
Boozersaid the staff has discussed the possibility of filing a First Amendmentlawsuit, along with potentially severing all financial ties with the universityto become entirely independent.
“Inlight of this happening, it’s definitely on the top of our minds. We want to doeverything we can to make that an option,” she said. “That’s might be how wemake sure that we don’t get punished for telling the truth.”
By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer