Students could call upon courts
PHOENIX - State lawmakers are crafting budget proposals for the next fiscal year, but something is missing from one preliminary budget released this week, creating a hole that could be challenged in court.
The House of Representatives unofficial budget proposal leaves no state funding for student newspapers, which Mark Goodman, director of the Student Press Law Center, said would be unconstitutional and would not be upheld in court.
"I have no question that this kind of provision, in this context, would be clearly unconstitutional," Goodman said. "(This is) contrary to every notion of what the First Amendment was intended to protect."
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said in a meeting Tuesday that this note on the proposed House budget was a result of "sex surveys" and other things in student newspapers, which he said he did not think the state should be funding.
Pearce could not be reached for comment.
The Student Press Law Center, a legal advisory group for student newspapers and educators across the country, would fight for students' First Amendment rights if that budget line passes, said Cameron Eickmeyer, editor in chief of The State Press, Arizona State University's student newspaper.
The State Press faced criticism last semester when it published a nearly full-page photo of a woman's bare breast with a pierced nipple for a feature in its weekly arts section, State Press Magazine.
ASU President Michael Crow threatened to stop funding the newspaper after a major university donor alerted Crow of his disgust with the editorial decision to run the photo, and threatened to stop donating to the university.
Arizona Daily Wildcat Editor in Chief Brett Fera questioned the timing of the proposal.
"It seems coincidental with everything we saw last semester with Crow potentially wanting to censor The State Press," Fera said.
The Wildcat has not experienced such problems with President Peter Likins, Fera said, and urged other university administrators to take the same lead.
"Likins has been very, very conscious of our role on campus and very understanding that we have a job to do, and it's a part of our educational process to be able to do this on campus," Fera said.
The ASU department of student media receives 10 percent of its funds from the state and the rest from advertising income, said Kristin Gilger, director of student media at ASU.
Gilger said if this measure were to pass, the 10 percent of state funding would simply be directed elsewhere in the department.
Although the Wildcat receives no state funding and would not be affected at all by the legislation, said Mark Woodhams, director of student media at the UA and Wildcat adviser, student newspapers serve an educational purpose and are a "valuable educational activity." Students could lose that learning opportunity if this measure passes, he said.
"It seems to be a very narrow-minded, censorious concept," Woodhams said.
Goodman said in his 20 years at Student Press Law Center, he has never heard of a state Legislature attempting to eliminate state funding.
He said schools and state governments have no obligation to fund student publications, but once they choose to, taking away funding based on content choices goes against the first amendment.
Goodman also said he did not understand what this lack of funding would accomplish.
"Why student newspapers?" Goodman said. "What about magazines, what about all other student activities? Are they, next year, going to say, 'no funding for student government debates or groups that bring speakers to campus?'"
Like the attention the State Press received after publishing the photo, Northern Arizona University's student newspaper, The Lumberjack, was also criticized about a year ago after publishing a column on how to perform oral sex.
Lumberjack General Manager Brian Gillespie said the newspaper, which is partially funded by the state, had to form a focus group of Lumberjack employees, university faculty and community members to come up with a recommendation for the future of the paper.
Gillespie said the group gave its recommendation to NAU President John Haeger in November, and heard back a couple of weeks ago, a year after the column was published, the paper could continue operating as it had before: editorially independent of the university, but semi-financially dependent.
"The way that we're set up is we use state funding when we need it, when we aren't pulling in enough by ourselves," Gillespie said.
Fera said the Wildcat's functions, both in terms of staff and finances, are something the paper maintains steadily.
"We're very lucky to have a pretty dedicated, established staff across the board," Fera said. "Even if it's a large changeover (from one semester to the next), instead of rebuilding it's reloading ... we can sustain year-in and year-out."
Though Eickmeyer said losing state funding would not cripple The State Press, Gillespie said it could affect the Lumberjack if the paper was not bringing in enough advertising funds to support itself.
The Pima Community College newspaper, the Aztec Press, could not be reached.
Though the notion of non-funding appeared in the House of Representatives budget, it is not official. The House and Senate, which have each created separate state budget proposals, must combine efforts to agree on one budget that both support.
That "joint" budget is expected to be completed and sent to the Governor's Office sometime next week, where Gov. Janet Napolitano could further change it before approving the final version. The new budget will take effect July 1.