When Student Press Is Up for a Vote

After the student newspaper at Rutgers was denied funding in a student vote, an academic watchdog group says the process for doing so violated the First Amendment.

June 10, 2019
 

Rutgers University's student newspaper has tentatively lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual support from the institution, but a civil liberties watchdog says the process for funding the publication is unconstitutional.

Since 1980, when The Daily Targum, a 150-year-old newspaper, broke from Rutgers to become an independent publication, the student body has held a referendum vote every three years on whether to allocate student fees to the paper.

As long as 25 percent of the students in each of the undergraduate colleges on the New Brunswick campus participated in the referendum and a majority of those voting favored financing the newspaper, it received significant funding from student fees. For the coming academic year, that would have been $540,000, or about 70 percent of its $800,000 budget.

But for the first time since the Targum’s split from the university, the referendum failed with every college -- not enough students voted, even though those who did vote were in favor of funding the newspaper.

The development comes after a nearly two-year campaign by the Rutgers Conservative Union to deny funds to the newspaper. It began after student journalists at the Targum wrote a piece in March 2017 detailing how the group posted fliers that mimicked literature from Vanguard America, a white supremacist organization.

In a Facebook post, the conservative union decried the connection between it and Vanguard America as “fake news,” a common refrain of President Trump and other conservatives.

The group's leaders posted on Facebook in September 2017, saying that they would campaign on campus to defund the Targum -- that students could spend the $11.25 in student fees they give to the Targum on “something more worthy.”

Students at any time can request a refund of the fees they pay to individual groups.

This May, the referendum vote was held among the colleges. Though the students who did vote favored funding the Targum, the newspaper didn’t reach the necessary 25 percent participation level among any college.

Shortly after, the conservative union posted a statement to Facebook saying that it did not intend to “destroy the paper” in its campaign, but it wanted to “give more freedom and more choice to the already overcharged Rutgers student.”

“The obscure and overly complicated method of gaining a refund from the Targum was obnoxiously secretive and complicated,” the union wrote. "If you don’t use a service, and don’t like what’s being offered, there is no reason to pay for it.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which specializes in civil liberties in academe, wrote to Rutgers president Robert Barchi this month, citing court precedents that found using a referendum to distribute student fees was unconstitutional.

In a well-known Supreme Court case, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Scott Harold Southworth, decided in 2000, the court found that the university’s process of charging student fees to fund student groups was a viewpoint-neutral system.

However, it remanded part of the case down to a federal district court on some of the student groups at the University of Wisconsin seeking funding through referenda. The court wrote, “To the extent the referendum substitutes majority determinations for viewpoint neutrality, it would undermine the constitutional protection the program requires.”

Other federal court cases backed the idea that a referendum vote was not neutral. The University of Wisconsin later discontinued the referenda.

FIRE has called on Rutgers to do the same.

“The university must immediately reverse course and implement a funding process that doesn’t subject student newspapers, or any other student organization, to layer upon layer of impermissible viewpoint discrimination,” Adam Goldstein, program officer for FIRE’s individual rights defense program, said in a statement.

Goldstein wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that Rutgers had not responded to his letter.

Rutgers spokeswoman Dory Devlin said in an email that “the letter from FIRE was received and we’ll take a careful look at what the organization has to say about the referendum process that has been in place for nearly 40 years and provides funding for the Targum as well as for NJPIRG (New Jersey Public Interest Research Group).”

Goldstein wrote in his email that he has not heard of recent cases of universities using a referendum to fund student groups. Three or four decades ago, however, administrators viewed these types of processes as “really positive.”

“So I’m sure other places implemented it as a funding system, and some of them almost certainly are,” Goldstein wrote. “But it’s not defense to a civil rights violation to point out that civil rights violations happen regularly or even that they’ve been ongoing for decades.”

In the interim, Daily Targum staffers launched a GoFundMe and raised more than $18,000 for their budget. In a statement on Twitter, the newspaper said it was “working to address this funding crisis.”

Ideally, funding for campus newspapers would be distributed to them directly without any need for a vote, said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

Athletics departments, for instance, often receive a portion of these fees without other barriers, LoMonte said.

The peril of having a periodic reauthorization is that if the campus journalists have written something unflattering or unpopular among the students, they could turn on them and decide to cut their funding, LoMonte said.

“A especially divisive hazing story means you might lose your funding,” LoMonte said. “Imagine if the federal government operated like that, and libraries and theaters had to go before the public.”

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