Editors of the Daily Kansan filed First Amendment suit against university administrators for funding reduction

KANSAS — The current and former editors-in-chief of the University Daily Kansan have sued two top University of Kansas administrators for reducing the student newspaper’s funding on the basis of content.

In the lawsuit, filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, Vicky Diaz-Camacho, editor-in-chief of the Kansan, and Katie Kutsko, former editor-in-chief, are alleging that a $45,000 annual reduction of student fees for the newspaper was in retaliation for an editorial criticizing the Student Senate. They are suing Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Tammara Durham, who is also an ex officio member of the University of Kansas Student Senate.

In May 2014, the Kansan published a “strongly-worded” editorial calling for reforms of the Student Senate election process after the student body president and vice president were elected despite receiving fewer votes than their competitors, who were declared ineligible the night before the election because of an election-code campaign violation. Later that summer, the student body president and vice president were removed from office and then re-elected and reinstated.

But in the next budget review of the Kansan’s student fees, the lawsuit alleges, student senators questioned Kansan editors for “unflattering coverage of the Student Senate” and criticized them for publishing the editorial. After the Kansan editors requested to maintain their existing funding level of $2 per student per semester, the Student Senate Fee Review Committee voted to cut funding to $1 per student — a $45,000 annual reduction.

The stated reason for the reduction was the Kansan’s plan to reduce print publishing from four days a week to two. But according to the lawsuit, committee members told the Kansan editors to “fix their content” and then ask for restored funding the following year.

The Student Senate Finance Committee later amended the funding reduction to $1.50 per student, which Kansan editors supported as a compromise. But after the Kansan staffers left that meeting, in which one student senator cited a “steady decline” in the quality of the paper’s editorial content, the committee tabled the final passage of the funding bill. Later, the committee again reduced the funding to $1 per student and voted to send the bill to the full Student Senate.

The full Student Senate approved cutting the Kansan’s funding in half to $1 per student for the 2015-16 academic year. According to the lawsuit, no other student organization had its funding reduced.

After the vote, the Student Press Law Center sent a letter of concern to Gray-Little, the university’s chancellor. SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte explained that cutting funding for content-based reasons was unconstitutional and asked her to stop the funding cut. Gray-Little declined to intervene and recommended the Kansan staff meet with Durham, who had to approve the student fees budget before it went to the chancellor’s desk.

Durham said she would mediate a meeting between Kansan editors and the Student Senate members. At the meeting, the student body president said she would look into asking the Finance Committee to revisit the funding question. That never happened, and the student body president never followed up with the Kansan staff until after Gray-Little had approved the student fees budget — which included the funding cut.

According to the lawsuit, the $45,000 reduction forced the Kansan to eliminate 13 paid student positions on both the editorial and advertising staffs and leave its news adviser position vacant.

“Not every other student newspaper in the Kansas state university system is compelled to go through an annual budget review that is recommended by an on-campus organization which is the subject of news stories and editorials,” the lawsuit states. “In addition to its practical impact on the ability of the Kansan and its staff to effectively gather, report and distribute news, the budget cut carries a significant chilling effect because it ties the Kansan’s receipt of adequate funding to the expressions of viewpoints which meet the approval of the Student Senate.

“As a result of the budget reduction, plaintiffs are chilled in their expression of First Amendment-protected speech, and are less likely than they would otherwise have been to express viewpoints critical of the Student Senate or to make independent editorial judgements about the newsworthiness of Student Senate events.”

Also according to the lawsuit, just over a month ago, a member of the Fee Review Committee complained to the Kansan news editor about the paper’s coverage of the Student Senate and said that the newspaper had “bit the hand that fed” it and the staff “got what you deserved.”

The lawsuit charges that the Student Senate “has made it clear that negative coverage … will impact reinstatement of the Kansan’s previous funding level in the upcoming annual fee review process.”

Federal courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional for student governments or university administrators at public institutions to decrease funding in retaliation for editorial content decisions.

A spokesman from the University of Kansas did not immediately respond to the Student Press Law Center’s request for comment.

The plaintiffs are asking for a preliminary injunction against the administrators that prohibits them from enforcing the reduction of the Kansan’s student activity fee allocation. The plaintiffs are also asking for nominal damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.

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