FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE JULY 28, 2017
Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director (202) 785-5450 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Public universities should not be given free rein to retaliate against student news organizations by withdrawing financial support, a coalition of journalism and free-expression organizations led by the Student Press Law Center told a federal appeals court in a brief filed Monday.
The SPLC and seven other organizations representing the interests of student and professional journalists nationwide asked the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a district court’s February 2017 decision dismissing a First Amendment challenge by the publishers of a student-run magazine at the University of California-San Diego.
UCSD and its student government association sought to silence the magazine, The Koala, which has become notorious for offensive humor that plays on racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes. After The Koala published an article mocking the concept of “safe spaces” on college campuses, the president of UCSD issued a statement denouncing the magazine as “repugnant, repulsive, attacking and cruel.” Within days, the UCSD student government voted to rescind student activity fee support for all student media, including The Koala and four other publications.
Represented by the ACLU of San Diego, editors of The Koala filed suit, arguing that the decision was unlawfully motivated by the publication’s viewpoint. But U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller threw out the case. Miller ruled that the university’s subsidy for media outlets is a “limited public forum” that the government can decide to close off to speakers at any time for any reason, even a retaliatory one. The editors are now asking a federal appeals court to reinstate the suit.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday by volunteer attorney Judy Endejan with the law firm of Garvey Schubert Barer in Seattle, the SPLC and other journalism supporters told the appeals court that the district judge’s ruling will leave campus news organizations vulnerable to punitive financial sanctions for performing their essential civic watchdog function.
“While this case is superficially about The Koala and its arguably offensive humor news, the rule established in this case has the potential to impact the freedom of diverse student publications across the country to report on controversial issues of public importance without fear of official retaliation,” says the brief, which was signed by the American Society of News Editors, Associated Press Media Editors, Association of Alternative Media, College Media Association, First Amendment Coalition, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.
The brief cites successful First Amendment challenges to retaliatory financial cutbacks aimed at other college news organizations, including a 2016 lawsuit that resulted in restoration of student fee money withheld from the University of Kansas student newspaper. Because of colleges’ demonstrated propensity to use financial support to manipulate news coverage, the brief argues, “a meaningful judicial recourse can mean life or death for journalism on college campuses.”
The case will now be scheduled for oral arguments before a panel of three Ninth Circuit judges, and a ruling will be months if not years away.
The brief is part of the legal advocacy work of the Student Press Law Center, a donor-supported nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., and founded in 1974 to provide legal training, assistance and advocacy in support of journalism students and educators nationwide. The SPLC maintains a nationwide network of attorney volunteers to assist student journalists in protecting their legal rights, and publishes guides to using the law to gather and disseminate news at www.splc.org.