Student journalists from KU sue university administrators

Bernadette Gray-Little, KU's university chancellor, is one of the defendants in the case of Vicky Diaz-Camacho, Katie Kutsko and The University Daily Kansan v. Bernadette Gray-Little and Tammara Durham. (Photo Courtesy of Chuck France/KU Marketing Communications)

Current and former editors of the University of Kansas’ University Daily Kansan student newspaper filed a lawsuit against two of the university’s administrators on Feb. 5 after the alleged violation of First Amendment rights.

Bernadette Gray-Little, KU’s university chancellor, and Tammara Durham, KU’s vice provost of student affairs, have been named as defendants in the suit.

Vicky Diaz-Camacho, the Kansan editor-in-chief, and Katie Kutsko, former Kansan editor-in-chief, filed a suit arguing that a reduction in funding determined by the university’s Student Senate Fee Review Committee, was in violation of the newspaper’s First Amendment rights, as, in the suit, the Kansan claimed that the university’s student senate called for a substantial cut of the publication’s funding due to their negative coverage of its organization.

According to the lawsuit, Gray-Little and Durham had knowledge of the ruling of budget cuts against the Kansan and still authorized them.

“It wasn’t an easy process or decision,” Diaz-Camacho said. “It was our last option.”

Diaz-Camacho said that about a year ago, the annual student activity fee at the university went from about $2 to $1 per student, cutting the funding for the publication in half. The Kansan was forced to drop 13 student staff positions, leaving the copy chief position vacant, according to Diaz-Camacho and court documents filed in the case.

“It’s sad,” Diaz-Camacho said. “Students looking forward to working at the Kansan can’t because there’s no money.”

At the annual fee review in 2015, Kansan editors and the senate had reached a compromise in funding, but it was nullified by the senate immediately after the members of the Kansan left the meeting, Diaz-Camacho said.

According to the Kansan’s website, the newspaper believes the cut in funding was retaliation for an editorial published in 2014 that criticized the senate’s election process that year.

“I can’t say for certain that it was retaliation,” Diaz-Camacho said. “But that’s how it looks.”

In the lawsuit, the editors said the annual fee review in 2015, following the publication of the editorial, was used by members of the senate to “punish” the editors of the Kansan and to voice their opinions about its negative reports of the senate.

Diaz-Camacho said the editorial was not in the senate’s favor but that should not matter. She said it is rare for instructors to contribute to the Kansan.

“We have to report the facts regardless of how it makes people feel,” Diaz-Camacho said.

The writer of the editorial, Mark Johnson, is a lecturer of journalism at KU and a lawyer and partner at a Kansas City, Missouri, law firm. In the editorial, he wrote that the student senate for 2015 would be made up of candidates who did not receive the majority of votes.

Johnson said his legal specialty is election law and he even teaches a class on the subject at KU. He said the kind of work he does for a living includes analyzing political elections.

“That election had very interesting features,” Johnson said.

In the May 2014 student senate election, one of the coalitions campaigning for election was disqualified the night before the voting happened because it committed a “really technical violation,” but it was not removed from the ballot, Johnson said.

Johnson said the disqualified coalition received over 60 percent of the votes while the coalition that was elected only received about 30 percent of the votes.

“The thing that offended the people elected was my suggestion that if they took office, they consult with people that they’ve ‘defeated,’” Johnson said.

Johnson, also a chairman of the board of directors for the Kansan, said it was his idea to run the editorial in the Kansan, and the editors approved. He said his intention was to call attention to a flaw in the election process and to suggest possible changes.

“Why were several thousand KU students disenfranchised?” Johnson said in the editorial.

Johnson said he did not expect any backlash from the senate after he wrote the editorial, but he is sure the budget cuts had something to do with it.

“They voiced their unhappiness, and at the same time, cut our funding,” Johnson said. “You don’t gotta be a rocket scientist to figure it out.”

The lawsuit said that Johnson told Durham and other members of University Student Affairs that the discussion of the Kansan’s content “infected” the annual fee review and violated the First Amendment.

Diaz-Camacho said the decision to sue was made after multiple meetings with university officials and no action from any of them. She said it was a careful process that took about 10 months.

“It wasn’t immediate,” Diaz-Camacho said. “It was kept under wraps for quite some time.”

Diaz-Camacho said she wanted to make sure they found the right people to help them. The Kansan reached out to the Student Press Law Center, an organization that offers free legal assistance to student journalists, specializing in cases regarding the First Amendment.

“The lesson from this case is that college administrators can’t and shouldn’t sit on the sidelines as spectators when the First Amendment is being violated under their authority,” Frank LoMonte, executive director of the law center, who was involved in the process, said in the Columbia Journalism Review article “Why student journalists at University of Kansas filed a federal lawsuit.”

Hayley Tuggle, junior in biology at KU, said cutting funding for students is always a bad idea, and she knows students in the school of journalism are angered by the situation.

“I never think it’s a good idea to cut funding for students,” Tuggle said. “Especially if they’re trying to improve their experience at KU.”

Tuggle said experience is the best thing for students, and cutting funds and taking away jobs also takes away opportunities for experience.

Diaz-Camacho said she likes the Kansan’s chances and the experts she has spoken with feel the same, as the evidence is present.

“There’s obvious violations of the First Amendment,” Diaz-Camacho said.

The case is showing journalism students at KU that First Amendment rights are important enough to take a stand, Johnson said.

“In the fall of 2014, there were rumblings that they were unhappy about it,” Johnson said. “Politicians get bad things written about them all the time. I didn’t think it was a big deal.”