PODCAST: When are student newspaper budget cuts unconstitutional?

Former Editor-in-Chief of Wichita State University's newspaper, Chance Swaim. Swaim and the staff of The Sunflower fought back when the newspaper's funding was severely cut for what appeared to be content-based reasons.
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Cory Dawson: If you take a close look at any tuition breakdown, you’ll almost always see some money put aside for a student fee, or an activity fee, or a club fee — but they almost always mean pretty much the same thing.

This money goes to student government so they can distribute it to clubs, student organizations, and themselves. At many schools, student news organizations get a cut of this money.

But things get complicated when a student newspaper does accountability reporting on student government. Inevitably, budgeting season rolls around, and editors find themselves in the hot seat, asking a panel of those very same students they’ve been covering to give money to the paper.

So when is a budget cut illegal? And what can student media organizations do about it?

Hi, I’m Cory Dawson, and you’re listening to the Student Press Law Center podcast. Today, we’re talking to student journalists who’ve had budgets cut, student leaders who’ve done the cutting, and the media lawyers who step in when a cut crosses the line.

CD: We should mention that if your student newsroom is facing a budget cut or any other legal issue, the Student Press Law Center is always here to help. Just go to splc.org/legalrequest to find a time to talk to an SPLC attorney for free.  

In 2018, at Wichita State University in Kansas, the Sunflower student newspaper was doing some hard-hitting reporting. They questioned administrators about a business relationship that could have led to a conflict of interest.

CD: Chance Swain was  editor-in-chief of the The Sunflower in 2018 and is now a reporter at the Wichita Eagle. He and Sunflower reporters covered the possible conflict of interest extensively, but soon their tough reporting started to irk administrators — and it put the newspaper’s funding at risk.

CS: We sit down and as soon as I start asking some tough questions, I start hearing things like, you’re way out of line. You’re on thin ice here, Chance. If we have a conflict of interest then you have a conflict of interest because you receive student fees. It’s one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard.

CD: The Sunflower’s finances were brought up more often as Swaim and his team kept digging.

Sunflower reporters found through an open records request that administrators were talking about, quote, “fixing” the Sunflower’s funding situation. They sent Swaim a letter threatening he may have a student conduct violation because of an ad that ran in the paper.

The newspaper also knew that soon, they would have to present to a very administration-friendly student government about why they deserved a $158,000 budget, on par with what they ask for and receive every year.

The student government declined, and offered them $50,000.

CS: It wasn’t surprising, but it was still shocking kind of how bald the attempt to just cut us for no reason was. Throughout the year it affected us, and it kind of affected me, just the stress of knowing that this 125-year-old newspaper could be defunded because of its reporting. It made me really question the importance of what I was doing … it does have a chilling effect

I probably self-censored a little bit to try to keep from, you know, rattling the cage too much. There was a brief period of time in like November, December were I kind of shut down a little bit just as far as my reporting goes, because I felt like at any turn they could fire my adviser, they could try to mess with my degree.

CD: We’ll get back to Chance’s story a little bit later. But the Sunflower’s predicament l begs the question, where’s the line? In a legal sense, it’s when public officials decide to cut a newspaper’s budget because of the newspaper’s content.

Mike Hiestand, (he-STEND) is the senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center. He’s been working with student journalists since 1989. He said he deals with about a half dozen serious, substantive cases a year where funding for student media organizations are threatened for content-based reasons.

MH: It’s a weird sort of relationship that exists in the student media world, and there are some very clear laws that regulate exactly what student government can do and can’t do.

MH: It’s basically when it goes from ‘I don’t like you,’ to ‘I don’t like you and I have some power over you, and I’m going to exercise that power.’

CD: Heistand explained that once students at public schools are given money to distribute, they’re essentially acting as public officials.

MH: At least in a public school setting, the minute the public university passes that duty on to student government, the duty to allocate public monies, student government officially become government actors, just like the school itself would be government actors.

MH: You can’t use that power [of] the purse, in any way to attempt to censor, to punish, retaliate for, anything that’s an attempt to control the editorial content and what student media, that’s where the line is crossed, at least in a legal sense.

CD: The Dixie Sun, the student newspaper at Dixie State University in Utah, lost a quarter of its student fee funding in early 2019. Editors say they felt targeted by the cut, but the situation was not as clear-cut as what happened in Wichita.

Student government leaders and university administrators say the cut was about curbing newspaper waste, not in retaliation for coverage. The university’s board of trustees made the cut at the recommendation of a student government committee that decides how the Dixie State student fee will be allocated.

Dixie State’s student fee is more than $400 per student. For the past 15 years, the student newspaper received $1 per student from that fee, meaning the paper got $12,000 per year. After cuts, the Sun’s collects 75 cents from every student, meaning they now get about $9,000.

The Sun has covered some controversial stories. They wrote about the ousting of two tenured professors, and went to the state Attorney General with an issue about getting access to meetings at Dixie State, a public school.

Ryann Heinlan, the newspaper editor, said the mood in the Dixie Sun newsroom after they learned of the impending cuts was low.

Ryann Heinlan: The feeling in [the] newsroom immediately after that was just defeat. It was, it was just, well, this is what’s happening. It’s us against the world.

CD: Every year a student government committee — the Student Fee Allocation Committee — meets to figure out what the new student fee will be. During the 2018 cycle, the committee raised a concern about papers going unread, and considered cutting the Sun’s budget. Instead, they decided to give the paper a year to evaluate its pick-up rate and try to improve it.

Over that year, The Sun found that about 600 copies of its 1,000-copies-a-week print run weren’t being picked up. The Student Fee Allocation Committee used that as justification for the cut.

The Student Press Law Center asked the university and student government if these cuts were in any way related to the Dixie Sun’s content, and the answer was an unequivocal no. The Sun was one of several clubs or programs the student government cut or completely defunded this year. But student government also increased funds to other programs, leading to a larger student fee than the previous year.

Cajun Syrett, student body president at Dixie State, defended the student fee allocation committee, and said they had to take into account the papers that weren’t being picked up.

Cajun Syrett: I would actually feel more…guilty isn’t the word…more bad, about making a decision regarding how this is viewed, versus standing up for what’s right and standing up for student money.

CD: Syrett said he understands the optics of cutting a newspaper’s budget are less than ideal, especially since it’s focused on $1 from a $400-plus student activity fee. But he has a responsibility to be sure all the student fees are being allocated fairly, he said. He added that the SGA is willing to take another look at the Sun’s funding level during budget negotiations next year.

CD: But Heinlein pointed out that the cut would only affect the paper’s budget for scholarships and technology — if they cut their print run any further, they’d lose out on advertising revenue.

RH: They kind of told us that we need to focus more on our website and less on print. And we, we explained that if we were to decrease the amount that we print, there wouldn’t be a significant change in how much we’re spending. Because obviously, like, the more you print the better deal you get. And at this point, we’re kind of at that tipping point where it really isn’t going be a deal anymore.

CD: On top of all this, the Sun has been strung along and publicly lambasted by the university’s college of business and communication. Right after their budget was cut, Sun editors were told that the college had a fund it could use to help replace its aging computers. After sitting down with the college dean though, the Sun learned the college would not give them enough for even one computer.

And to add insult to injury, the dean, Kyle Wells, sent a note on a popular faculty and staff listserv lambasting the Sun, saying in part, quote “I feel the general sense is that the paper has become a bully pulpit for a few disgruntled students.”

It’s not all terrible financial news for the Sun, though. The paper has about a $14,000 budget surplus from previous year’s ad revenue.

Trustees said they would be open to revisiting the reduced allocation soon

CD: So what can students do?

Firstly, staff need to make sure the business side of the newspaper is running smoothly. Responsible management means keeping an emergency fund, making sure ad revenue is rolling in, soliciting donations, and constantly looking for new revenue sources.

Some student newspapers are completely independent from the university and are set up as nonprofits. This is the most surefire way of ensuring financial and editorial independence. But making that transition is a huge organizational and logistical hurdle for many student newspapers, and it often means giving up student fee money.

Papers that do get student fee money and sense they’re being retaliated against can make a case that their First Amendment rights have been violated. Over and over again, judges have ruled that public schools cross a line with any attempt to manipulate, retaliate against, or in any way control what student media publishes. But it’s tough to prove the connection between funding cuts and past coverage.

Mike Hiestand: The problem in these cases is finding the evidences, is finding that sort of smoking gun that shows that link between what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, showing that content-based motivation that’s the key in these cases.

CD: So, Heistand says, it’s a good idea to keep a record.

MH: I recommend to all student media staff that they start a you know, whatever they want to call it, I call it a First Amendment file. And that’s just what it says, it’s a manila folder, where anytime, anything is said by student government officials, by school officials, anything that is somehow related to content should go into the file.

CD: Heistand said that because the law is so clear, universities are usually not interested in escalating a legal fight with a student newspaper.

MH: If you have, you know, the evidence to show that they are taking this action because they don’t like the paper, if they’ve certainly made comments that are derogatory about the paper and you can put two and two together, you know, usually these things are resolved short of going to court.

CD: Offering your case in the court of public opinion is another avenue — university administrators and student governments are sensitive to public perception, and they may change their stance to avoid being seen as being hostile to First Amendment issues..

At the University of Mary Washington, the The Blue & Gray Press student newspaper’s budget was slashed from just over $13,000 to $100, for supplies. But after a media blitz and a claim that the cuts were related to the newspaper’s content, the funding was quickly restored.

In Wichita, Chance Swaim and his team at The Sunflower also decided to fight back. Seeing a clear First Amendment case to be made, they sought legal help.

CS: We did get in touch with a big scary law firm and threatened a lawsuit against the university.

CD: After the lawsuit threat, the university ended up finding an extra $20,000 for the Sunflower’s budget. But it wasn’t enough, so they sent a follow-up letter from the Sunflower’s attorney — basically saying they needed more, the university brought Sunflower funding up to be equitable to the prior year’s budget, which was about $100,000.

CS: We didn’t let it stop us from reporting important stories. You know, we we had to think a little bit harder about why we were doing it and if it was worth it, and the answer was almost always yes, it’s worth it.

CD: As always, you can set up a time to talk to Mike or any of the other Student Press Law Center attorneys for a free legal consultation.

CD: Thanks for listening to  the Student Press Law Center podcast, produced here in Washington D.C. You can find news stories about student press rights, advice, legal resources, and quizzes on our website, splc.org. Follow us on Twitter @SPLC, Instagram @studentpresslawcenter and be sure to like our Facebook page. You can follow me on Twitter @Dawson_and_Co. The music played was called Fuzzy Feeling by Everet Almond and Sunset Trails by DJ Williams.