Student editors sue university trustees over funding cut

Editors believe decision to reduce fee allocation by 40 percent was motivated by paper's content

COLORADO — Three editors of a student newspaper are suing their university’s board of trustees, claiming that the board cut the newspaper’s funding because of its content.Editor in chief Heath Urie, managing editor Christopher Marcheso and news editor Andrew Rosenthal allege that the University of Northern Colorado Board of Trustees approved a recommendation to reduce of The Mirror’s funding by 40 percent because of articles that were critical of the board and the university’s Student Representative Council. 

The editors filed the lawsuit against each member of the university’s board of trustees July 14 in a federal court in Denver “to vindicate their freedom of speech rights,” the editors' lawsuit states. The SRC recommends to the university’s board of trustees how to allocate the student fee money among student groups. The board has the power to modify the SRC’s recommendations. 

The editors’ lawyer, James Hubbell, circulated a letter to the board at its last two meetings clarifying the editors' position that the recommended cut in funding violated the First Amendment.

“With knowledge of the allegations and evidence of viewpoint discrimination, the board of trustees failed to articulate a rationale for the funding cut, failed to address accusations of viewpoint discrimination, and failed to modify or nullify the retaliatory funding cut proposed by the SRC,” the editors' lawsuit states.

The editors contend that the board cut the newspaper’s budget as “a warning to The Mirror on how to style its future content.”In 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit stated in Joyner v. Whiting, “Censorship of constitutionally-protected expression cannot be imposed by withdrawing financial support, or asserting any other form of censorship oversight based on an institution’s power of the purse.” 

The Colorado Supreme Court cited the case approvingly in a 1984 decision.Members of the board of trustees did not respond to requests for comment.This lawsuit is the second the newspaper has recently filed against a university governing body. Three editors — Urie, Marcheso and former editor in chief Jessica Perciante — filed a civil suit against the student government in April, alleging the body violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law numerous times during the 2003-2004 school year. 

This case has a court hearing scheduled for Aug. 11.

Before bringing the suit against the SRC, The Mirror ran articles about the body engaging in illegal closed meetings and the arrest of one of its vice presidents for driving under the influence.The Mirror is published by the Student Media Corporation, a nonprofit corporation, and it receives a substantial part of its budget from student fees. The Mirror has a yearly-operating budget of about $250,000, said Paula Cobler, The Mirror’s general manager. 

It costs $47,000 to print the publication each year, and in the last fiscal year, it received $37,500 in student fees, the editors’ lawsuit stated. While giving itself an increase of $11,000, the SRC cut The Mirror’s funding by $15,349 to $22,151 for fiscal year 2004-2005. The SRC gave another student group $23,000 in excess of what it had requested.

Jory Taylor, an SRC vice president and student member of the board of trustees, introduced the proposal in the SRC to cut The Mirror’s funding. He said it is his priority to see that student fees are being allocated to where the need is, state the SRC’s minutes from the April 7 meeting. 

Taylor argued that the newspaper was “double-dipping” into student fees — getting money directly from student fees, and indirectly from student groups using their student fees to pay for advertisements in the newspaper.Three groups representing minority students asked the council not to cut The Mirror’s funding, the minutes state.

During the meeting at which the funding was cut, “SRC vice president Chris Porter objected to The Mirror’s content and urged SRC members to vote to cut the paper’s funding for that reason,” states the editors’ lawsuit.The editors seek a declaratory judgment that the defendants’ actions violate the First Amendment, a restoring of The Mirror’sstudent-fee funding to the level requested before the reduction and attorney’s fees.

In a separate development, the board has also proposed a bid process for the student newspaper where interested parties would submit bids to be the university’s newspaper. Instead of The Mirror being given fees, that money would go the party awarded the bid as subsidy from the university.The board has not yet voted to put the paper up for bid, but it is being considered, said board president Dick Monfort. 

Ron Lambdin, the university’s legal counsel, is working on the request for proposal, a type of bid document used to solicit proposals from prospective sellers of products or services.Cobler said Lambdin has met with the newspaper’s board and is writing the request for proposal in a way that favors The Mirror, but he could not guarantee that the newspaper would get the bid. 

“Quite frankly, we’re still unsure what’s going to happen to our newspaper,” Urie said. “Worst case scenario, we might not exist this time next year. It all depends on how Lambdin writes this request.”

The board has not commented on why it is looking into the bid process, but Urie said he hopes it is to remove the student government from The Mirror’s funding process. Urie, however, also does not want the board to control the newspaper’s funding either.

He would like for both the SRC and the board to be removed from making budget decisions for the newspaper to bring stability to the funding process.

He said he does not want to worry about negative coverage of the board affecting the newspaper’s finances. 

“It scares the hell out of me,” Urie said. “I don’t think any newspaper should have to worry about what it prints as long as it is accurate.”

Colorado, Fall 2004, reports, The Mirror, University of Northern Colorado