SPLC files brief in support of restored attorney fees for student press advocate

The Student Press Law Center joined forces Tuesday with more than 155 students, faculty and supporters at the College of Staten Island to ask a court to review massive cuts to the attorney fees awarded to Ronald McGuire, who represented College of Staten Island student journalists pro bono in a long-waged First Amendment dispute they won in 2007.

The SPLC and other supporters filed friend-of-the-court briefs Tuesday urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to review the attorney-fee issue in front of all of the court’s judges. For nearly 18 years, McGuire has been fighting a legal battle over the College of Staten Island president’s cancellation of the student election, a move meant to punish the student newspaper for running a special election endorsement issue.

Volunteer attorneys Myron Beldock, Marc A. Cannan, Roger S. Wareham and James I. Meyerson filed the brief on the SPLC’s behalf.

The Second Circuit ruled in favor of the student journalists in the 2007 case Husain v. Springer, but awarded McGuire only a small sliver of attorney’s fees. Although he represented the students for free, McGuire contends that he dedicated an estimated 3,500 hours of his time to the case, and he and his staff invested $832,000 in labor and costs. A December 2014 district court order slashed the fees to $56,000.

The district court decision came on the heels of a August 2014 order from the Second Circuit, which found that even a lower award of $221,500 in fees and costs was excessive. The courts justified the nearly 94 percent reduction from the original estimate by pointing out that McGuire succeeded on few claims compared with those initially brought.

McGuire is now asking all 22 judges who serve on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to review that decision, which was made by a three-judge panel.

SPLC attorneys emphasized in their brief the importance of awarding fair attorney fees to pro-bono advocates for student press freedom, whose student clients already face heavy burdens when challenging schools in court.

“While it so happens that counsel in this case agreed (at great personal sacrifice) to represent the plaintiffs pro-bono, consider the disastrous result if that were not the case,” attorneys wrote in the brief. “Only 5.2% of Mr. McGuire’s fees would be covered due to the actions by the at-fault defendant, the former president of a large public university, and 94.8% would be absorbed by the eight blameless plaintiffs who were, at the time, college students. This result is, simply put, intolerable in a civilized society.”

The brief argued that attorney’s fees exist to allow victims of civil rights violations to get help from the court system, regardless of their ability to afford a lawyer. Reducing McGuire’s award by such a large extent “frustrates” that purpose, the brief said.

Dissenting judge Dennis G. Jacobs of the Second Circuit blasted the case as a “slow-motion tantrum by children” and a “case about nothing,” also referring to the newspaper as “illiterate piffle.”

The SPLC’s brief frames the landmark 2007 decision as “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 precedent has secured success in other First Amendment battles, attorneys wrote, helping fired college newspaper adviser Gerian Steven Moore win his job back in a 2012 federal district court case.