Judge dismisses lawsuit against university-based investigative news organization

For at least the second time in recent years, an investigative news organization faced an attempt to sever their relationship with the public university where they are housed.

In California, Superior Court Justice Eddie Sturgeon dismissed a lawsuit against San Diego State University-based inewsource in a brief decision released on Sept. 8, citing the organization’s news-gathering role as a protected activity.

In April, San Diegans for Open Government, a nonprofit group, sued inewsource, its executive editor Lorie Hearn, San Diego State University and the SDSU Research Foundation, over an alleged conflict of interest involving the news site’s lease agreement.

SDOG alleged “lecturer Lorie Hearn had negotiated a sweetheart deal for her private business to operate out of the KPBS studios at SDSU and was using the SDSU/KPBS logos to promote her business, all for about $1 per year.”

In a statement after the lawsuit was dismissed, SDOG said it was “concerned that this ruling paves the way for any public employee to use his or her position to get secret, special treatment at taxpayer expense and escape being held accountable in court just because the employee’s private business is in a field protected by the First Amendment.”

inewsource shares office space and does investigations with public media outlet KPBS on SDSU’s campus. The nonprofit teaches, trains and mentors students at the journalism school.

Hearn rejected the notion of indiscretion at the nonprofit investigative news outlet.

“inewsource has had a lease with San Diego State University for years,” Hearn said in a statement to inewsource. “I was paid to teach one class during one semester, in the spring of 2015. Anyone who is familiar with bureaucracies, like universities, knows that a part-time professor has absolutely no power to influence anything, let alone a contract for work space that overwhelmingly benefits not only the KPBS audience.”

inewsource attorney Guylyn Cummins speculated the open government group’s motivation for filing the lawsuit may be retaliation. In the past, inewsource produced stories unflattering to Cory Briggs, a lawyer affiliated with SDOG.

Over the past several years, the number of nonprofit newsrooms housed in universities has risen significantly.

In 2013, an anonymous legislator offered an amendment to the Wisconsin budget bill that would have removed the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and banned employees from working with the center as part of their official duties.

In exchange for office space on the UW-Madison campus, the center hires and trains student interns throughout the year.

While the amendment was approved 12 to 4 in committee on a party line vote with Democrats voting against, the measure was opposed by those across the political spectrum in the state. 

“It is the height of arrogance, and everybody who voted for that should be embarrassed. It smacks of the kind of tactics you would expect from Vladimir Putin or Hugo Chavez — not in Wisconsin,” state Sen. Dale Shultz, a Republican, said on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Conservative radio host Charlie Sykes wrote, “Here’s hoping my fellow conservatives will sober up, see the light, and take this out of the budget.”

The amendment was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican.

In July, the Student Press Law Center announced a partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit News. SPLC will offer training and specialized legal expertise to nonprofit newsrooms based at universities.