Trouble is brewing at the University of Kansas (KU) over a controversial decision the university’s student senate made. The student senate has elected to slash funding for the school’s newspaper, The University Daily Kansan, and has received backlash in the form of a lawsuit.
On Feb. 5, the current editor-in-chief Vicky Diaz-Camacho teamed up with former editor-in-chief Katie Kutsko to file a lawsuit with the United States District Court for the District of Kansas against Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Litte and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Tamara Durham. The suit alleged that student fee cuts to the tune of $45,000 were a form of retribution aimed at the newspaper for a scathing 2014 in critiquing the student senate election process. The article recommended drastic changes to protect the integrity of the democratic process, the writer argued which was threatened by inadequate enforcement of the election rules.
KU’s student senate suggested that there was no correlation between the budget cuts and the May 2014 editorial. The official reasoning for the student senate fee review committee was that, due to the fact that the “Kansan” was now planning to publish at a reduced rate, cuts of this extent were both logical and necessary. The committee also stated that the quality of the Kansan was a determining factor in deciding on the cuts, and that if the paper could improve upon its quality, then it would be able to regain the funding. The committee even went so far as to include members of the Kansan in their deliberations over the fee cuts but ultimately did not factor the newspaper’s analysis or opinions into their decision. Despite what was said and done publicly, privately, the reasoning seems to be more politics.
“Just over a month ago, a member of the fee review committee complained to the Kansan news editor about the paper’s coverage of the Student Senate and said that the newspaper had ‘bit the hand that fed’ it and the staff ‘got what you deserved’,” said a representative of the Student Press Law Center.
This suit poses the broader question of whether or not it is within the limits of the First Amendment to tie funding for student newspapers with the content they produce. The implications of a ruling that asserts the constitutionality of the position held by Chancellor Gray-Little and Durham would be far reaching as any such ruling would fundamentally redefine how collegiate newspapers are protected. On the other hand, it should be noted that courts have traditionally ruled in these sorts of cases that it is unconstitutional to base funding on content. Regardless, it will certainly be interesting to see how the court rules in this particular case and whether or not this turns into a protracted legal struggle.