Lawsuit over student newspaper funding at University of Kansas voluntarily dismissed

KANSAS — The University of Kansas’s student-run newspaper the University Daily Kansan has resolved a First Amendment lawsuit against the university.

The lawsuit, which was filed in February, was dismissed June 27 after both parties reached a resolution. Both parties declined to comment.

Two editors, Vicky Diaz-Camacho and Katie Kutsko, filed a civil complaint in a U.S. district court against University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and Vice Provost Tammara Durham.

The lawsuit was an attempt to restore a 50 percent cut in funding that the editors believed was in retaliation to a critical editorial published by the paper and to establish a process that would eliminate the opportunity to make funding decisions based on viewpoints, according to an SPLC press release.

The dispute began in May 2014 after the paper published an editorial calling for changes in the student election system. The strongly worded editorial was in response to a botched election in which the leaders in the election were disqualified.

The Student Senate then voted in April 2015 to cut their funding by reducing the student fee allocated to the paper from $2 to $1, reducing their funding from $90,000 to $45,000.

The editors said members of the senate openly acknowledged that the cut was in response to the editorial and other coverage critical of the university. A member of the finance committee said reducing the fee was in response to what the senate felt was “problematic” coverage, according to a SPLC press release.

The paper claimed this forced them to eliminate 13 paid student positions. Jon Schlitt, the sales and marketing adviser and temporary editorial advisor for the paper, said the positions will remain the same during fall semester, but his hope is that they will begin to filled during spring semester. They are also in the process of hiring a permanent editorial advisor.

However, the senate already reversed the funding cut late in the spring semester. The senate approved keeping the funding reduction in place in March, but at their last meeting in April, they reversed the decision. They restored the funding and then some, raising the student fee to $2.50.

The Kansan will receive the $2 per student for the two years following this academic year. After the 2019 fiscal year, the Kansan reported, the paper will no longer request funding from the Student Senate. Schlitt said their plan is to work with the newspaper’s alumni to set up an endowment fund to support the paper instead.

One of the paper’s editors, Vicky Diaz-Camacho, previously told the SPLC the lawsuit was a “last resort” and they felt their rights were being undermined by the university, freedom necessary to serve as a watchdog.

“Our First Amendment rights enable us to report on our student body and student government. The University Daily Kansan is the watchdog for the community, and our constitutional freedoms are at the crux of what we do and help provide transparency to our readers,” Diaz-Camacho said.

Patrick Doran, the attorney representing the student editors, declined to comment on the settlement, but he previously was quoted in an SPLC press release saying the funding cut dampened the journalists’ freedom of speech.

“Our Complaint alleges that the defendants were aware of the First Amendment issues when Kansan editors met with university administrators, but the defendants approved the retaliatory fee cut anyway,” said Doran, the student editors’ attorney. “We allege that this creates a chilled environment for the Kansan journalists, and this is especially true in light of the Kansan’s upcoming annual fee review, since one Fee Review Committee member recently told the news editor that the Kansan had ‘bit the hand that fed’ it.”

The university challenged this, defending the cut by maintaining that it was in response to a 50 percent reduction in publication. The paper had reduced its schedule from publishing four days a week to two days a week.

“This 50 percent publication cut was the official reason given by the Student Senate Fee Review Committee for the fee cut,” the defendant’s motion to dismiss said.

However, the paper argued they still needed the full amount of funding due to increased website maintenance costs and to counteract the drop in advertising revenue, according the motion to dismiss.

SPLC staff writer Evelyn Andrews can be reached by email or (202) 974-6317.

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