U. of Memphis paper faces funding cut after tension with administrators, police
Editors say move is in retaliation for coverage
TENNESSEE — The student newspaper at the University of Memphis is protesting a budget cut it believes to be a direct response to the past year’s content.
The school’s seven-member Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee voted near the end of the school year to slash The Daily Helmsman’s budget by 33 percent. The newspaper will receive $50,000 from student activity fees this publication year, as opposed to $75,000 last year.
While the bulk of the Helmsman’s funding comes from advertising revenue, a smaller contribution from student activity fees has traditionally covered printing and distribution costs. This year, the newspaper requested $80,000 in student fees — $5,000 more than it generally receives.
If the normal funding of $75,000 is not restored, Editor-in-Chief Chelsea Boozer said the Helmsman may be forced to scale back on its page count or reduce its frequency of publication.
Helmsman editors said they have been told by several committee members — including student government representatives and university administrators — that the cuts are due to growing displeasure with the newspaper’s content.
In one meeting with Boozer, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Stephen Petersen summarized some of the committee’s complaints.
“I can’t begin to tell you the examples [of articles in the newspaper] that came up ... that seem to have very little relevance or that seemed to touch very, very few students on the campus,” he said, according to a recording of the meeting provided by Boozer.
Petersen, who chairs the allocation committee, acknowledged in the meeting that some committee members had even supported providing no funding for the Helmsman at all.
Petersen was out of the office for the week and wrote in an email that he was unavailable for comment as of press time.
At the beginning of the budgeting process this year, the committee had $1,568,456 available to allocate — a slight decrease from the $1,635,875 available at the same time last year.
While most groups are facing a slight budget cut, the Helmsman’s 33-percent reduction is tied with the school’s art museum as the organization facing the largest percentage drop in funding from student fees.
Former Student Government Association President Tyler DeWitt, who sat on the allocation committee before graduating this spring, said the funding decrease was a financial necessity, along with the fact that the Helmsman has not been serving the interests of the student body.
“We sat down with them and asked, ‘Is the purpose of the newspaper to promote student activities and report on things going on school, or is it to serve as a training tool for journalism?” he said. “By what we could gather, the newspaper is more of a tool to help journalists prepare for their professional career. In the purview of what the student activity fee is meant to cover, we didn’t think the newspaper met the standards of what the committee required.”
While DeWitt denied that the Helmsman’s content had anything to do with the decision, he said he personally has been disappointed with some of the newspaper’s coverage.
Among other things, SGA representatives have expressed disappointment that the Helmsman has covered some campus events after they take place, rather than writing preview pieces so the student body is aware of the events in advance.
In one case, they were upset that the Helmsman chose to send a reporter to cover breaking news of an on-campus rape, rather than reporting on a talk by former presidential candidates Fred Thompson and Howard Dean.
In another instance, Petersen and some SGA members took issue with a profile piece on the school’s Marxist Student Union, citing the club’s lack of broad appeal to the student body.
Boozer believes the fact that these content-related complaints took center-stage in the budgeting process makes this a clear First Amendment violation.
“The fact that they cut our funding because they didn’t like our content is intimidation for us not to report the things they don’t want us to report,” she said. “The Helmsman is serving as a valuable information source for the students, and any direct influence on our content could be a dangerous change to that.”
This is not the first time Boozer has found herself at the center of a controversy between the newspaper and the university.
On March 28, Boozer wrote an open letter to the university’s police director, criticizing his department for not being transparent with the campus community following the alleged rape of a student.
That same day, a university police officer filed two separate incident reports against Boozer and a fellow reporter. The first report alleged that Boozer had trespassed at the school’s police department headquarters after hours by deliberately causing a disturbance after she was told that a police official had left for the evening. The second report claimed she forced her way into several student residences, refusing their demands to leave.
Boozer staunchly denied all of the allegations in a letter to University President Shirley Raines, providing evidence to refute all of the officer’s claims. The university has not pursued any disciplinary action against her.
“I think the attack on me shows a larger picture of administrative officials’ disapproval of the newspaper,” Boozer said.
Helmsman General Manager Candy Justice, who has been with the newspaper for 20 years, believes that “the funding situation is bad enough, but to attack a student who they should be nothing but proud of is the worst thing that I’ve seen here.”
While Boozer is unsure if there is any connection between the newspaper’s coverage of the rape and the budget cut, she believes the funding decision is “just another example of how our administration is disapproving of the Helmsman.”
Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte, who wrote a letter of concern on Boozer’s behalf following the police reports, agreed.
“You can’t have student newspaper editors second guessing themselves based on pleasing a governmental budget writer,” he said. “When you condition government funding on content choices, that raises First Amendment red flags.”
LoMonte added that, by acknowledging the presence of coverage complaints in its decision-making process, the allocation committee committed a “smoking-gun First Amendment violation.”
“When you admitted that you punished the newspaper for editors’ content decisions, then it’s game over,” he said.
The school, however, disagreed.
In a statement, the university claimed that the Helmsman was not singled out or treated differently than any other organization.
“Based on the information we have, the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee cut funding to several organizations this spring,” the university said. “Since that is the case, we see no legal issues resulting from the committee’s decisions.”
While the committee’s decision on the initial budget was final, the Helmsman will have an opportunity to receive more funding at a supplementary budget hearing for all student groups in October.
Current SGA President Russell Born, who will be involved in the October budget allocation process, said he will evaluate “how well different organizations are meeting students’ needs” in deciding who will get additional funds.
“I’ve heard complaints that some student groups’ needs aren’t being met by the Helmsman,” he said, referencing the newspaper’s decision not to cover certain campus events. “We need students to know about the big events on campus. I would hope that every group would be about making this campus the best it can possibly be.”
For its part, the Helmsman has begun reaching out to its alumni community to marshall support leading up to the October vote.
Helmsman alumnus Jim Willis, who is helping to lead this effort, said there is an undeniable cause and effect relationship between the newspaper’s coverage of controversial issues and its current budgetary situation.
“It seems like a slam dunk prior restraint, prior review issue,” he said. The committee “doesn’t understand the difference between journalism and public relations, and they want the student newspaper to become another public relations arm of the university. It’s unfathomable to consider how you’d follow that logic.”
Boozer said the staff has discussed the possibility of filing a First Amendment lawsuit, along with potentially severing all financial ties with the university to become entirely independent.
“In light of this happening, it’s definitely on the top of our minds. We want to do everything we can to make that an option,” she said. “That’s might be how we make sure that we don’t get punished for telling the truth.”
By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer
news, Tennessee, The Daily Helmsman, University of Memphis