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Free speech fight 

AASU student paper sues, alleging First Amendment violations

IN A university-owned newspaper, who has the final say regarding what can be published? The university administration or the editorial staff? Where does the First Amendment right to free press and free speech apply?

This series of questions, plus concern about of funding, lies at the heart of a July civil suit filed in Chatham County Superior Court against Armstrong Atlantic State University (AASU) by three current or former staffers of The Inkwell, the AASU student newspaper.

In the meantime, the presses continue to roll at The Inkwell. Despite the pending lawsuit, the newspaper has published four weekly editions since fall semester began, says Brian Anderson, the new editor-in-chief and a plaintiff in the suit.

According to a copy of the court filing found on the Student Press Law Center website, the plaintiffs claim that reductions to the paper’s 2008 – 2009 budget were made by AASU administrators “in retaliation for editorial content decisions” made by Inkwell staff based on news stories and editorials published during the 2007-2008 academic year.

The plaintiffs (Anderson, Angela Mensing, and Kristen Alonso) filed suit on July 3 against AASU, the student government association, and three university administrators—President Thomas Z. Jones; Vicki McNeil, Vice President of Student Affairs; and, Al Harris, Director of Student Activities. The lawsuit is believed to be the first such action in the seventy-three year history of the newspaper, confirms Wayne McNeil, Interim Director of Legal Affairs for AASU.

The plaintiffs and the defendants have been advised by their respective attorneys not to comment on specifics of the lawsuit while it is pending.

During fall semester of 2007, newly appointed Inkwell Editor-in-Chief Mensing changed the paper’s traditional editorial approach from “relatively deferential to the AASU administration” to “a decidedly more aggressive stance toward news coverage,” according to the lawsuit. In response, AASU and Student Government Association officials launched “a pattern of openly criticizing and second guessing the content and viewpoint decisions made by the editors of The Inkwell.”

In subsequent months, the newspaper’s budget was cut — the only group whose SGA funds were cut — resulting in the plaintiffs being “chilled in their expression of First Amendment-protected speech, and ...less likely ...to express viewpoints critical of AASU or to make independent editorial judgments....”

The lawsuit references a February 8 editorial criticizing administrators for not immediately firing a former vice president after he made unauthorized purchases using a state credit card.

Also mentioned is a March 7 news story reporting on the university’s non-compliance with the Clery Act, a federal law requiring colleges and universities to report crimes committed on campus within two days. The story describes two violent crimes that occurred on campus in early 2008 that were not reported by campus police within the required two day window.

However, commentary in the suit from administrators and the SGA does not refer to these published items, but instead references other news stories and management decisions as targets of criticisms from AASU officials.

First Amendment rights for college newspapers can have different interpretations than for independently-owned media, according to Robert Bush, a public interest attorney in Savannah. “In the college setting there are more restrictions than for someone who is out on the sidewalk or who isn’t part of the college. The student’s First Amendment right on campus is different than the student’s right off campus, generally. The college to some extent can call the shots as far as the student newspaper. I just can’t tell you how far that goes.”

The Inkwell’s ability to increase ad revenue is a key portion of the lawsuit. According to the filing, the portion of the Inkwell’s overall budget for 2008-2009 provided by student activity fees was cut by $14,760, which was 21% of the paper’s 2007-2008 budget of $69, 490.

Most of that difference was projected to be recouped by advertising sales totaling $25,500—a figure proposed by The Inkwell staff during the budgeting process.

“Ad revenue in 2007-2008 was $15,000,” says Angela Mensing, a lawsuit plaintiff and former Editor in Chief of the Inkwell. Mensing graduated from AASU in May and is a staff writer with The Effingham Herald. “At the end of fall of last year, we were close to $14,000. That was awesome. Things did not go as well the second semester for various reasons. We ended up not doubling that.”

In early 2008, Mensing submitted a draft budget of “over $70,000” that anticipated comparable funding provided by student activities fees and $25,500 in ad sales. “If I had known at that time we would be starting with a new advertising crew and that the administration would cut our student activity fees as much as they did I would not have projected $25,500 for next year.”

Mensing notes that the decrease in guaranteed funds affects the paper’s ability to hit the ground running when students arrive in the fall. “That advertising budget is based on money that we hope to earn by the end of that fiscal year. Student Activity Fund money is sitting in that account at the beginning, ready to be spent, able to be spent.

“If we have to cut back on pages or on paying writers, that can affect the amount of advertisers we bring in. It is a Catch 22.”

The net result of the cut in guaranteed funds and an increase in potential sales revenue was a budget of $65,240, a 6% decrease from the combined 2007-2008 budget.

“We’re implementing a very aggressive advertising plan,” says Anderson, the current editor. “Hopefully money won’t become an issue, we have to work much harder on the ad side. It’s going fairly well, so far we haven’t had any budgetary issues. We’re tryng to move on and are putting out a really good paper every week.”

McNeil confirms that in August the lawsuit was transferred from state court to federal court. He can’t predict how long this action will take for resolution.

“Every lawsuit has its own personality,” he says.

In April, under Mensing’s leadership, The Inkwell published a special edition featuring an unsigned, full-page letter to Jones and six signed letters to Jones on the back page. The cover letter asked for restoration of funding, and the only content is the word “censored” repeated six times in two-inch tall letters.

The Inkwell has not published any articles on their lawsuit in the four issues that have been published since the July legal action occurred, nor had any stories been posted on their online newspaper, www.theinkwellonline.com.

“I suppose when something changes we will publish it,” says Anderson.

Attorney Bush recommends communication among all parties take place at AASU. “I think the whole community over there would gain from having open discussions about important issues. Is the newspaper supposed to be a PR magazine for the college, or is it supposed to be news and events that are not sensitive to the administration’s opinions? Is it supposed to be a true journalistic experience for those who are writing it?” cs

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