Editors sue Ga. college over cuts to student paper's budget

GEORGIA -- Student editors at Armstrong Atlantic State University's student newspaper, The Inkwell, filed a lawsuit Monday against the university, claiming the school stifled their right to free speech when the paper's budget was slashed in March.

The civil suit, filed in the Superior Court of Chatham County in Georgia, said the 2008-09 budget cut was in retaliation for a more aggressive and critical approach to covering the university's administration.

According to the complaint, the budget reduction "was motivated wholly or in substantial part by the disagreement of AASU officials with the content and viewpoint of The Inkwell newspaper."

In March, The Inkwell was allotted $39,740 from student activity fees, a reduction of $14,760 from the year before.

Angela Mensing, former editor in chief of The Inkwell and a plaintiff in the case, said that the reduction was a way to get back at the newspaper.

"The university didn't like our content choices, they didn't like the stories and they didn't like the way we covered the student government. It wasn't how they wanted to be covered," Mensing said.

During a Feb. 16 budget hearing, Mensing said, members of the Student Government Association Finance Committee criticized the paper's coverage of SGA events. She said the meeting was just one example where it seemed the university was using the newspaper's content as a reason to cut the paper's budget.

The complaint asserts that the budget cut coincided with an Inkwell

investigation into the university's failure to fully satisfy all disclosure obligations under the Clery Act, a federal law that gives the public access to certain campus crime information.

In addition to getting funding from student fees, the newspaper also receives money by selling space for advertisements. That amount, which was projected in March for the upcoming year, rose from $15,000 to $25,500.

The university set The Inkwell's total budget, combining what the newspaper will receive from student fees and advertisement space, at $65,240. That is a net reduction of $4,260 from the 2007-08 year.

Francisco Duque, spokesperson for the university, said university had "no comment" on the lawsuit.

Gerald Weber, an attorney representing editors at The Inkwell, said the university's actions were out of step with the First Amendment.

"The Armstrong Atlantic student journalists were taught the wrong lesson when a university responded to good and critical journalism by cutting the funding for the paper," Weber wrote in an e-mail to the Student Press Law Center.

Weber took the case through the SPLC's Attorney Referral Network.

The suit alleges violations of the rights of three current and former

Inkwell editors - Mensing, Kristen Alonso and Brian Anderson - under the federal and state constitutions. The complaint asks the court to restore student activity fee funding to its 2007-08 level.

Chris Nowicki, an SGA Finance Committee member, and Al Harris, director of student activities and one of the defendants in the lawsuit, referred all of the SPLC's questions to Duque and the university.

Armstrong Atlantic State University, Georgia, news, The Inkwell