Student paper sues school admins. over alleged 'retaliatory' budget cuts

Two University of Kansas administrators are being sued by the student newspaper, claiming that they approved funding cuts in retaliation for a critical op-ed column.

The University Daily Kansan announced Friday that it had filed the lawsuit against Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Tammara Durham earlier the same day, and is seeking the restoration of a $45,000 funding cut imposed by Student Senate last year.

The lawsuit alleges that members of the Senate acknowledged to reporters at the time that the cut—which has forced the paper to eliminate 13 paid student staff positions and prevented it from filling the role of News Adviser—was directly related to content concerns, and that the funding would be restored if the Kansan were to “fix [its] content.”

Specifically, the paper claims that the funding cuts were enacted as punishment for a May, 2014 opinion column in which Adjunct Journalism Professor and Chairman of the Kansan Board of Directors Mark Johnson expresses “strongly worded” criticisms of the Student Senate election process.

Johnson complains in the op-ed that the Student Body President and Vice President elected in that year’s student government election from the “Grow KU” slate had received “barely 30 percent of the votes,” while the rival “Jayhawkers” candidates who actually received a majority of votes were disqualified for a minor irregularity in their campaign finance report.

Not only were the Jayhawkers disqualified on the day before the election, he asserts, but their candidates were left on the ballot, leading voters to believe that they were still eligible. And when the Jayhawkers party subsequently appealed to the Senate, Johnson claims that irregularities and rules-violations marred the process.

According to the lawsuit, the Grow KU candidates—President Morgan Said and Vice President Miranda Wagner—were removed from office in August, 2014 after the University Judicial Board Appeals Panel called for a re-election based largely on the concerns raised by Johnson’s column, but were able to win re-election because the Jayhawkers candidates were also excluded from the second election.

Said and Wagner remained in those positions the following spring, when the Kansan came before the Senate for its annual budget review to request that funding be maintained at the existing level of $2.00 per student.

During a preliminary meeting between Said and representatives for the Kansan, the lawsuit states that Said referred to the fact that members of the Fee Review Committee were unhappy with the May op-ed, and told them to expect the issue to come up when they presented their budget request to the Committee.

As Said predicted, the column turned out to be a major focus of hostility during the budget meeting, at the conclusion of which the Committee voted to cut the paper’s funding to $1 per student—a decision that Committee Chair Jesse Pringle officially attributed to the fact that it would be cutting its print publication schedule from four issues per week to two, but which some Committee members allegedly described as leverage to induce the Kansan to “fix [its] content.”

The paper’s editors fought the Committee’s recommendation at the definitive Finance Committee hearing the following week, arguing that the reduced printing schedule was merely a way to shift resources to the digital realm, but were again rejected, with one Committee member allegedly tying his vote directly to the “steady decline” in the paper’s editorial content.

Initially, the Committee agreed to a compromise funding level of $1.50 per student, but the lawsuit claims they then tabled that legislation and revived the $1.00 funding proposal, which was passed by the full Senate despite the fact that no other student organization received any reduction in funding that year.

At that point, the Kansan engaged the assistance of the Student Press Law Center, which contacted Chancellor Gray-Little to express concerns that the funding cut was tied to content concerns and therefore a First Amendment violation. Gray-Little responded by suggesting a meeting between Provost for Student Affairs Tammara Durham—who must approve the student fees budget before it goes to the Chancellor—and representatives for both the newspaper and student government.

At the end of that meeting, Durham asked Said to reconvene the Finance Committee to reconsider the funding decision, but according to the lawsuit, no action was ever taken to follow through on that instruction.

Nonetheless, both administrators proceeded to approve the final budget despite their knowledge of the underlying dispute and the Senate’s failure even to review its initial decision.

Moreover, the lawsuit asserts that the Senate’s hostility toward the paper has not abated as the next annual budget review approaches, claiming that a member of the Fee Review Committee had recently contacted the Kansan’s news editor to complain about the paper’s coverage of the Senate, reportedly stating that the staff “got what [they] deserved” because the paper had “bit the hand that fed it.”

The lawsuit concludes that the Senate’s words and actions have “made clear that negative coverage of the Student Senate by the Kansan will impact reinstatement of the Kansan’s previous funding level in the upcoming annual fee review process,” and asks the court to both reinstate the original funding of $2 per student and prevent either the Senate or the university administration from taking further retaliatory action against the paper.

“Federal courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional for student governments or university administrators at public institutions to decrease funding in retaliation for editorial content decisions,” explains the Student Press Law Center, which is assisting with the case.

KU spokesman Joe Monaco told The Topeka Capital-Journal that he was unaware of the lawsuit Friday afternoon and was unavailable to comment at that time. Campus Reform contacted him for an update, but did not receive a response by press time.

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