ACLU files lawsuit against UC San Diego for defunding student media in retaliation of satirical student paper

CALIFORNIA — The San Diego American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against UC-San Diego administrators, claiming the Associated Students Council violated a controversial newspaper’s First Amendment rights by eliminating funding for student print media.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a provocative campus newspaper, The Koala. The satirical student newspaper is known for its offensive and vulgar mockery of issues like ethnicity, religion, rape, and people with illnesses and disabilities.

For years, The Koala has faced criticism, but through donations and funding from the college, it still prints regularly. Then, last year UCSD Student Council pulled funding for not just The Koala, but all student print media.

On Nov. 16, The Koala published the article, UCSD unveils new dangerous space on campus, mocking students’ desire for safe spaces on campus, and the article used many racial slurs.

Two days after the satirical article was posted, UC-San Diego administration released a statement denouncing The Koala. In the statement, the administration said that The Koala is “profoundly repugnant, repulsive, attacking and cruel” and urged other faculty, staff, and students to join them in condemning the publication. That same day, the A.S. Council voted to cut funding for all active student media outlets.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed May 31, states that, days before the defunding, there was talk about the removal of the paper in an email thread between multiple UCSD officials.

The Guardian, a self-funded student newspaper on campus, reported that the then-Associated Students Council President, Dominick Suvonnasupa, said the denouncement and funding cut, happening on the same day, was just a coincidence. But, The Koala’s editor told SPLC that it was “more than a coincidence”.

“AS could have been much smarter about the defunding decision,” the editor said in a statement. “If they had voted to cut media funding any other time — not right after we published a piece mocking safe spaces, not right after the administration released a statement denouncing us, and not right after AS themselves, in their meeting, made it clear the decision was because of our paper, they would have been in the clear. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest the decision was heavily biased. Even the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs showed up to that AS meeting to talk about The Koala.”

The lawsuit, against UCSD administrators, claims the A.S. Council violated The Koala’s constitutional right to First Amendment protection, which guarantees the freedom of speech and of the press.

“I think the administration and student government are a bit misguided on what is good for the campus,” the editor told SPLC. “Violating the first amendment in an attempt to harm a particular student paper is certainly not a good thing.”

David Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, told The San Diego Union Tribune, that even if the decision to cut funding wasn’t directly targeted at The Koala, it is still illegal and violates the First Amendment’s freedom of press law.

Loy released a statement regarding the lawsuit that said, “However offensive and outrageous The Koala may be, its authors are writing about topical issues of public concern,” he said. “No matter how offended I may be, it is still much worse to give government the power to decide what speech to censor. Once granted, that power will inevitably stifle protest and dissent.”

Although ACLU San Diego plans to represent The Koala, they also emphasized in a press release that they do not endorse the content of the newspaper.

“The ACLU sympathizes with students who are concerned about the reactions to The Koala’s content, especially by those who have suffered violence, racism, sexual abuse, or other traumas. We find this content disturbing too. But the First Amendment protects ‘outrageous and outlandish’ speech that is often contained in publications such as The Koala, however vulgar and offensive they may be.”

The lawsuit asks the college to reverse the Student Council’s decision and have the council start funding all student media again. On July 18 a motion for a preliminary injunction will be filed in federal court, Loy said.

While the student government association cut ties with the campus’s media outlets, ACLU reported they still fund other speech organizations. The lawsuit’s complaint about the Student Government says it is ““unconstitutionally eliminated funding for publication of student print media while continuing to fund other speech and activities of student organizations”.

Some of the organizations that are funded by the student government include, Acts 2 Fellowship (“foster community and Christian values”), Students Against Mass Incarceration, and the College Democrats of UCSD (“Presidential Primaries Update”), along with many others.

The Koala is referring to this trial as, “the trial of the [explicit] century”. And although the newspaper’s article regarding the case is exaggerated, the editor told SPLC that the lawsuit is “absolutely” necessary.

“Not suing would set a dangerous precedent that the university could do what it pleases – illegal or not – without consequence,” said the editor.

SPLC staff writer Shea Smith can be reached by email or (202) 478-1926.

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