First Amendment concerns were raised over the relationship between The Michigan Every Three Weekly and the University Activities Center after a high-ranking Athletic Department official approached the editors of the popular student-run satirical campus newspaper and UAC last month.
UAC is a student-run organization that distributes money — provided to UAC by the University through student fees — to 15 student groups, including the Every Three Weekly, that provide activities and entertainment for students.
After the Every Three Weekly printed an issue that included three stories about student athletes — including one, headlined “Phelps To Major In Pussy,” that skewered University student and Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps — Executive Associate Athletic Director Michael Stevenson said he felt obligated to approach the newspaper and the UAC executive board, which controls the newspaper’s funding.
“I think that that kind of satire is unbecoming to any student at the University,” Stevenson said. “It adds nothing to our campus community to have that kind of discussion.”
Although all parties involved in the meeting said neither UAC nor any University official threatened to censor the Every Three Weekly or cut its funding, UAC’s involvement in discussions of the newspaper’s content raised First Amendment concerns. Mark Goodman, executive director of Student Press Law Center, said UAC’s executive board should not involve itself in the Every Three Weekly’s content.
“It is undoubtedly inappropriate for the University or a body to which the University has delegated authority to be hearing complaints about the content of a student publication,” Goodman said.
UAC President Mark Hindelang said UAC has no plans to forcefully censor the Every Three Weekly, but that it has the authority to do so.
“The UAC executive board has the right to tell the E3W not to print whatever we want,” Hindelang said. “It’s a choice that we make to leave it up to them.”
But Goodman said UAC, because its funding and authority are provided by the University, has no right to censor a publication under its control or to cut funding for reasons related to content.
“If (UAC) attempted such an action, there would be a very clear First Amendment claim on the part of the (Every Three Weekly’s) staff,” Goodman said. “They have no more ability to ignore the First Amendment than the University itself would.”
According to case law, including the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and the 2001 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit case Kincaid v. Gibson, public schools cannot censor a student publication, reduce its funding or discipline its editors for the purpose of controlling content.
Under Tinker, censorship of student expression is legal only if school officials can prove that the expression would substantially disrupt school activities or invade the rights of others.
According to SPLC, courts have also determined that student governments — because their funding and authority come from the universities — have the same First Amendment obligations as the public universities themselves. UAC’s position, Gibson said, is the same as that of a student government.
When Stevenson initially contacted UAC, Ganz said Mark Hindelang, president of UAC, asked her not to distribute the remaining copies of the issue and not to post three offending articles on the Every Three Weekly’s website. Ganz complied voluntarily, she said, because few of the newspaper’s on-campus readers use the website and because the initial distribution run had reached enough students. It is typical, she said, for The Every Three Weekly to distribute only about two-thirds of the copies it prints.
Ganz said she would not want to work for The Every Three Weekly if the UAC executive board were to exert the control it says it has over the newspaper.
“I don’t think the E3W would be able to function if we couldn’t publish what we wanted to,” she said.
Miranda Covey, vice president of finance for UAC, said UAC would not want The Every Three Weekly to offend the University administration because it could threaten UAC’s relationship with the administration and the Regents.
“(The administration) being concerned means it’s not a good situation and we need to do something about it,” Covey said.
Goodman said that, by involving itself in discussions of a publication’s content and seeking to placate the administration, the UAC executive board showed that its priorities are misplaced.
“If they are not willing to stand up for the free expression rights of the student activities they fund, I think they’re really failing in their responsibility,” he said.