SPLC Supports N.Y. Student-Rights Attorney Whose Legal Fees Were Slashed Despite Victory

April 30, 2015   
Contact: Frank LoMonte, Executive Director
director@splc.org or 202-872-1704

Joining a bevy of New York civil-rights lawyers, the Student Press Law Center called on a federal appeals court Wednesday to correct an unjust attorney-fee award that financially punishes the volunteer counsel for college journalists who won a landmark student-rights case in 2007.

The SPLC filed a friend-of-the-court brief Wednesday with the New York-based Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals urging the court to restore reasonable fees for attorney Ronald McGuire, who represented the student editors of the College Voice newspaper at the College of Staten Island in a long-running First Amendment battle with their school. The brief seeks reversal of a December 2014 U.S. district court order slashing McGuire’s attorney fees, even though his side prevailed in the case.

In 2007, the Second Circuit ruled in Husain v. Springer that the president of the College of Staten Island could be held personally responsible for violating the First Amendment rights of student journalists by canceling a campus election to punish the newspaper for releasing a special endorsement issue on the eve of balloting. The case has dragged on for nearly 18 years, causing McGuire to invest more than 3,500 hours of time for which he charged his student clients nothing.

By McGuire’s calculations, he and his staff invested $832,000 in labor and costs in the case — yet in the 2014 order, the district judge granted only $56,000 in fees and expenses. The district court was following an August 2014 order from the Second Circuit, which found that even a greatly reduced initial award of $221,500 in fees and costs was excessive. The courts have justified these reductions by pointing out that McGuire succeeded on a numerically small number of claims compared with those initially brought.

The SPLC brief points out that students everywhere will benefit from the legal victory won thorough McGuire’s efforts in Husain, “the most authoritative precedent in the country for the principle that retaliation for student speech need not be directed at the student speaker to create a chilling effect.” The Husain opinion helped a fired college newspaper adviser win back his job in a 2012 federal district court case against Chicago State University, Moore v. Watson.

It is especially important that attorneys receive fair compensation for volunteering to represent student plaintiffs, because students already face such adversity in challenging their schools in court, the brief argues. If the 93 percent reduction in McGuire’s fees is not corrected, it will be more difficult for students to find qualified legal representation, the brief contends.

“It’s outrageous that the State of New York will end up paying what is, for an agency of that size, the equivalent of a parking ticket for having dragged out a First Amendment dispute needlessly for more than a decade, while the students’ counsel faces financial ruin for having zealously stuck by his clients,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC. “Attorney fees are supposed to provide a disincentive for government agencies to violate citizens’ constitutional rights, but the incentives in this case are completely out of whack. Telling a powerful government agency that it can get away with censoring journalists by paying a token $56,000 penalty is an engraved judicial invitation to commit further violations.”

The SPLC is represented by volunteer attorneys Myron Beldock, James I. Meyerson. Roger S. Wareham and Michael W. Warren of New York.

A group of 110 current or former CUNY students or employees, including New York City Council member Ydonis Rodriquez, filed a separate brief in support of McGuire, whom they called ”the foremost advocate and … the leading expert on the civil rights of CUNY students.” They credited McGuire with obtaining significant reforms over three decades spent representing students at CUNY, the nation’s third-largest university by enrollment, including an end to unconstitutional bans on campus speakers and greater openness in governance.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center conducts workshops on media-law developments across the country and provides free legal research and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on its website at www.splc.org.