Paper Chase

Republican lawmakers take on the campus press

As politicians in Phoenix haggle over the state budget, students in college newsrooms across the state are waiting to see if state funding for college newspapers will be on the chopping block.

The legislative budget that Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed in March proposed prohibiting state funding for college newspapers, a measure Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said would be unconstitutional and would not stand up in court.

"I have no doubt: If this became law, any student who wanted to contest it would have a case against it," Goodman said. "It would be an easy case, in my mind."

The suggestion that there be "no state funding for university student newspapers" came from Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, a chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who said several legislators approached him with concerns over sexually explicit photographs and materials published in student-run publications.

"If you want to be a free press, be a free press, but we're not going to subsidize articles that are over the top, and there were a lot of folks that felt it was over the top," Pearce told The Associated Press last month. Pearce declined to comment for this story.

Chief among the "over the top" items that apparently turned some lawmakers' heads was a photograph of a woman's bare breast that appeared on the cover of Arizona State University's State Press Magazine, a weekly supplement to the university's paper, in October 2004.

The nearly full-page photo of a woman's breast with a pierced nipple accompanied a feature story on "extreme body modification."

The photo caught ASU President Michael Crow's attention, who threatened to take funding away from the State Press after a major donor to the university voiced his disgust over the photo.

In February 2004, Northern Arizona University's paper, The Lumberjack, also came under fire after it published an instructional column on how to perform oral sex. Lumberjack Editor in Chief Ryan Winslett said the column received a lot of media attention after the paper received numerous letters and complaints that the column was "too graphic."

While it remains to be seen whether the proposed ban on newspaper funding will resurface in budget discussions, neither the State Press nor The Lumberjack receives state funds, according to their editors, and neither would be financially affected if a ban passed, leaving some questioning why the topic came up in the first place.

"I'm surprised the Legislature would react that way," said Cameron Eickmeyer, editor in chief of the State Press.

Eickmeyer said he is used to butting heads with school administrators concerned with "controlling the school's image" over the paper's content, but he wasn't expecting it to become a state budget issue.

The State Press is funded mainly through advertising, with just 10 percent of its funding coming from tuition revenue, Eickmeyer said. The Lumberjack is fully funded by advertising revenue, although it occasionally borrows state money from the university--which must be paid back--if it does not make enough through ad sales, said Mary Lemma of NAU's Office of Public Affairs.

Eickmeyer said although the operation of the State Press would not be directly affected, a legislative measure to ban future funding for student newspapers based on content would set a "scary precedent."

Goodman said in his 20 years with the Student Press Law center, he has never known a state legislature to attempt to prohibit state funding for university newspapers.

"In most places, a state legislature would not even consider getting so involved with issues on an individual college campus," Goodman said.

Goodman said a decision to eliminate funding based on a newspaper's content would violate the First Amendment and set a precedent that could lead to censorship of teachers, campus speakers and other campus publications.

"It's a reflection of how little our public officials really know about the First Amendment," Goodman said. "They are virtual constitutional illiterates. It's very disillusioning to me, because these are the people who should know the most about what the constitution means and the principles behind it."

Brett Fera, editor in chief of the University of Arizona's Arizona Daily Wildcat, which receives no funding from the state, questioned the motives of the ban, but suggested it might have a positive side.

"At the Wildcat, we've been free from a monetary tie with the university for almost three decades, if not longer, and it's a great freedom to have," Fera said.

Fera said the Wildcat has been criticized by its readers for controversial content--most recently for a front-page photograph of a chocolate sucker in the shape of a vagina being sold on campus to raise money for the Oasis Program for Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence--but he said UA administrators are generally supportive of the Wildcat's right to make independent content decisions.

"We have a mutual respect with (UA President) Peter Likins and with the campus community," Fera said.

Fera also said newspapers make content decisions based on what appeals to readers, and for a college audience, that sometimes means taking risks other papers might not take.

"You have to expect that there are going to be some racy things that happen on campus," Fera said. "This is a college campus. These are the things that happen, and these are the things of interest to people. Our general population of readers is who we cater to, and if they appreciate it and read it and understand the reasoning for it, then that's the most important thing."

But not all school papers are able to enjoy the financial freedom the three major university papers have, and it's not clear how the proposal would have affected newspapers that operate as part of a university's curriculum.

And although the budget only noted "university student newspapers" as the ban's targeted party, the same prohibition could hit community college newspapers especially hard if it were extended to include them, since most community college papers rely more heavily on state funding.

Goodman said to put a blanket ban on newspaper funding based on concerns over content is dangerous territory, and as budget discussions continue, he said, the Student Press Law Center would assist any student journalist who wished to challenge the ban if it were to come up again and pass.

"I don't think there's any question it's unconstitutional," he said.

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