After being punished with a funding cut after an investigative story runs in Memphis, pressure from SPLC helps get money restored

University of Memphis (2012)

Memphis, Tenn.

A committee of students and administrators docked the University of Memphis’ campus newspaper budget by a third in apparent response to its aggressive investigative reporting on student government.

“Before the Student Press Law Center stepped in on the newspaper’s behalf, the University of Memphis administration didn’t really take our objections to their clear First Amendment violation seriously. When SPLC attorneys drafted legal responses to the university’s actions of seemingly harassing a student for reporting unfavorable news and cutting the newspaper’s funding based on its content, the university president at the time started to listen. A piece of advice to other student journalists going through a similar situation – never give up or back down, because as long as you’re after the truth and seeking the law to be upheld, you’ve got nothing to worry about. And don’t think it ends after college. This won’t be the last time an official attempts to stifle the press – my experience at the U of M surely hasn’t been my last fight for access to public records or attempts at retaliation for articles. You’ll be dealing with this your entire career. It’s your job to be the watchdog for the people. Ask the tough questions. Push for access to public documents and information. Shine the light.”

— Chelsea Boozer, then-editor-in-chief of the Daily Helmsman

The trigger

The Daily Helmsman published several in-depth investigative stories on topics such as student government officers getting free tuition, the football program being a financial drain on the school and the mismanagement of student fees. Its coverage also sparked tension with campus police over the issue of rape on campus. Friction also followed the editors’ decision not to cover a student-government-sponsored visit of two former U.S. senators, instead choosing to focus on breaking news of a campus sexual assault.

The school’s reaction

A committee comprised of students and administrators cut $25,000 from the newspaper’s student activities fund — a third of its budget. Remarks by university leaders directly connected the budget cut to editorial criticisms. Campus police lodged misconduct charges against the Helmsman’s top two editors, which the journalists contended were trumped-up and baseless; the charges went nowhere and no discipline was imposed.

Fighting back

Student editors gathered support from alumni and community members and sought legal advice from the Student Press Law Center, who wrote a letter of concern to the university president. Less than three days after the incident, the university president ordered an investigation into the budget cuts to ensure they were not motivated by content.

End result

The investigation found that the cuts were content-motivated and consequently restored the newspaper’s lost funding. The Helmsman and editor-in-chief Chelsea Boozer received accolades for bravery in the face of censorship, including the SPLC’s College Press Freedom Award.

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