U. of Memphis president orders investigation into Helmsman's budget cut
TENNESSEE — Less than three days after The Daily Helmsman publicly accused a University of Memphis committee of slashing its budget in response to content, the school’s president is ordering an investigation into the matter.
In an email response to Helmsman alumnus Matt Wilson, UM President Shirley Raines wrote that “even though it is my understanding that the committee’s initial decision to cut the Helmsman’s funding was not based on the content of the newspaper, I want to be sure that this is the case. Therefore, I have asked Dr. David Cox, who serves as my executive assistant and is also a professor in the Division of Public and Nonprofit Administration, to thoroughly review this matter.”
The debate over the Helmsman’s funding began near the end of last semester, when the seven-member Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee — made up of both Student Government Association members and university administrators — voted to reduce the newspaper’s budget by 33 percent from the previous year’s amount.
Although the majority of the Helmsman’s funding comes from advertising revenue, it is generally given $75,000 by the committee to cover printing and distribution costs. This year, it received $50,000 — marking the largest percentage cut for any student organization.
In a recorded meeting with Helmsman editors and in comments made to the Student Press Law Center, some committee members said the primary reason for the cuts was displeasure with the newspaper’s content. Among other things, SGA representatives were upset that the newspaper chose to cover other campus affairs instead of writing about student government-sponsored events.
Former SGA President Tyler DeWitt told the SPLC earlier this week that the Helmsman “didn’t meet the standards of what the committee required” for full funding. He defined those standards as whether the newspaper “promotes student activities.”
DeWitt said in an email Thursday that he is “confident that the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee acted in accordance with all applicable laws.” He declined to comment further, citing the possibility of a future First Amendment lawsuit by the Helmsman.
Cox, who will conduct the investigation, said in an email that he is “committed to providing a timely review and report.” He declined to comment further, saying “at this point, I don’t have enough information and haven’t given enough thought on how to proceed to provide any answers to your questions.”
Since the Helmsman began to publicize its situation at the beginning of the week, it has received a groundswell of support from UM alumni, professors and community members. Some have written letters to local media outlets and Raines, while others have expressed interest in raising enough money help the Helmsman become entirely financially independent from the university.
The Commercial Appeal published an editorial Wednesday, encouraging the committee to reconsider its thinking.
“Besides being an objective news voice about campus issues and events, the Helmsman serves as a real-life training ground for journalism students,” the editorial board wrote. “The SGA and the allocation committee apparently would like to see The Daily Helmsman become more of a fluff sheet. But responsible, independent journalism in cities and on university campuses is about reporting on a wide range of issues, and not just being a bugle call for organizations that think coverage of their events should be a priority.”
Helmsman alumnus Jim Willis, who said he has been in touch with more than 300 UM alumni about the situation, is pleased to see the amount of public support for the newspaper.
“It’s important that we keep the momentum rolling,” he said. “I am encouraged that the university seems to have backed off from its hard-line stand of first intimidation, then retribution, then denial, so I consider it to be a positive step that Dr. Raines would launch an investigation.”
Helmsman Editor-in-Chief Chelsea Boozer agreed.
“There’s already ample evidence out there that this was about content,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll look at that, come to the correct conclusion and fix the situation.”
As of press time, Boozer had not heard from Cox or anybody involved with the investigation.
Russell Born, current SGA president and allocation committee member, said he has no problem with the investigation and hopes the university will be “fair and neutral in hearing both sides of the story.”
Although he did not sit on the committee at the time of the vote to cut funding for the Helmsman, Born does not believe the newspaper’s content was a motivating factor.
The Helmsman will have a chance to get additional funding from the university at a supplemental budget hearing in October.
While many alumni have encouraged the committee to restore full funding at that time, Helmsman General Manager Candy Justice cautioned that this would not be an end-all solution.
“Just because we could get back the $25,000 doesn’t in any way mean we’ll be financially independent,” Justice said. “As long as we’re dependent on the university for funding, they’re always going to have that to hold over our heads.”
Boozer added that, at the end of the day, the newspaper is fighting for the UM community.
“This is not about the Helmsman versus the SGA, it’s not about the Helmsman versus the university. It’s all about making sure the campus has access to a free press,” Boozer said. “A free press is vital to our campus community, and we want to make sure that never changes.”
By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer
news, Tennessee, The Daily Helmsman, University of Memphis