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First Amendment Violation

UM restores Helmsman’s funding, report released

Published: Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 22:11


After an internal investigation, the University of Memphis has restored the funding cut from The Daily Helmsman by a University committee that was found to be in violation of the First Amendment. 

The investigation into why the independent student newspaper’s funding was cut, led by Raines’ Executive Assistant David Cox, wrapped up last week. 

Cox released a report of his findings that said the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee considered some of the paper’s coverage when deciding the amount to allocate the paper, which is “inappropriate under the First Amendment protections for student newspapers as outlined by the courts.”  

Daily Helmsman Editor-in-Chief Chelsea Boozer was allowed to observe Cox’s investigation, which consisted of individual interviews of six of the seven committee members.

“The interviews were handled ethically and fairly, but the report didn’t reveal the controversial comments made by some of the committee members,” Boozer said.

She said several members blatantly described how content was a factor in the committee’s decision. 

When last year’s Student Government Association Vice President Rachael Goodwin was interviewed, she said the committee discussed how The Helmsman should act as a public relations tool for student organizations.  

“We should be getting free advertisement for events through your articles,” Goodwin said, according to a recording of the interview. “You shouldn’t be writing about things post-event, you should be writing about things pre-event. That was a big discussion (within the committee.)”

She also questioned the paper’s First Amendment rights.

“We were trying to push through that to get to the core of the issue, which is what stories are you using your First Amendment right to run,” Goodwin said. “The First Amendment is kind of irrelevant.”

When asked why the report didn’t detail who said what, Cox said that wasn’t what he was charged to do.

“Who was not relevant,” he said. “Whether it happened was the question.”

Helmsman lawyer Brian Faughnan, with Thomason Hendrix law firm, was attained over the summer when the paper realized its rights had been violated. Faughnan said it is not a surprise that the University made a report of its own investigation seem as “innocuous” as they possibly could. 

Goodwin wasn’t the only committee member to talk about the Helmsman’s content when interviewed by Cox. 

Last year’s SGA President Tyler DeWitt, who also served on the committee, said the committee decided to withhold $25,000 from the Helmsman and would consider giving it back if the paper agreed to start printing a newsletter proposed by the SGA that would report solely on student events.

Petersen said the SGA wanted the paper to take on its newsletter because the newspaper “is in the printing business,” but the group asked the paper to print it separately, not add it into the Helmsman. 

“If (the Helmsman) were willing to (take over the newsletter) then the funding that would have otherwise been provided to the SGA could have been provided to the Helmsman,” Petersen said during the investigation.

Billy Lockhart, a student member of the committee, said DeWitt wanted to use The Helmsman’s funding as a means to get more SGA content into the paper. 

“He wanted to cut back on funding if the paper didn’t give Student Government more input into the paper,” Lockhart said. “He wanted to give a full amount of funding, but he wanted to add a stipulation that Student Government should have more input. Their advertisement and stuff like that should be put into the paper.”

Cox said there has been no discussion about members of the committee being reprimanded for the First Amendment violation.  

With the conclusion of Cox’s investigation, Raines said in a statement that alternative options for funding the paper would be explored.

Faughnan said the fact that the University is restoring funding and that they have come to the conclusion that a new way to allocate funding needs to be put in place says more than the report. 

“Actions speak louder than words,” he said. 

He disapproves of Cox’s recommendation that the University form a committee to explore a new funding method for the paper, saying that would “make things more complicated.”

“If one thing is missing, there is no reference to some of the alternatives we have provided,” Faughnan said. “We have proposed some alternatives to funding the paper, by no means unique, that work at other universities.” 

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