University Daily Kansan editors sue top KU officials over funding cuts

Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and another top KU official are being sued by current and former editors of The University Daily Kansan for allegedly allowing the student newspaper’s funding to be reduced on the basis of its content.

The suit filed Friday in U.S. District Court contends KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and Tammara Durham, KU’s vice provost for student affairs, gave their approval to a KU Student Senate decision in 2015 to reduce the student fee allocated to the Kansan from $2 to $1 per student per semester, or approximately $45,000 per year.

The funding cut was a retaliatory decision, the lawsuit argues, made as a result of an editorial published in May 2014 that called for reforms of the Student Senate election process.

Reduced funding has led to the elimination of more than a dozen positions from the Kansan’s staff, said current Kansan Editor-in-Chief Vicky Díaz-Camacho. According to the lawsuit, it’s also caused a “significant chilling effect” and left the independent student newspaper less likely to express viewpoints critical of the Student Senate.

“A lot of us are taking on the roles of editors or copy editors or reporters and photographers and videographers,” Diaz-Camacho said. “It’s difficult. We feel it. Fewer jobs at the Kansan means fewer opportunities for students.”

Díaz-Camacho and Katie Kutsko, who was the editor-in-chief when the editorial was published, are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Both Kutsko and Díaz-Camacho are seniors at KU. Kutsko is also currently an intern for Sunflower Publishing, which is owned by The World Company, the parent company of the Lawrence Journal-World.

“The reason why we filed the suit today was because we’ve exhausted all of our other options,” Kutsko said. “We met with Student Senate leadership, with the chancellor, other university officials, with general counsel, and no one would acknowledge this was a First Amendment issue.”

The lawsuit states an annual budget review of the Kansan’s fees was used by student senators to “interrogate and punish Kansan leaders for unflattering coverage” and that it was brought up by senators at subsequent meetings.

When a Student Senate committee voted Feb. 27, 2015, to reduce funding, one Student Senate leader said it was because of the Kansan’s altered publication schedule. The Kansan had previously published four days per week and was cutting back to a two-day-per-week printing schedule. Kansan leaders argued the newspaper needed to maintain its funding because the cut in published product meant less advertising revenue.

But another student senator said the May 2014 editorial was “repeatedly referenced with hostility” during deliberations, the lawsuit states. Another senator said in an interview with a Kansan reporter that the funding was cut partly because “some of the coverage had been really problematic in the past.”

According to the lawsuit, no other student organization had its funding reduced that year. The 50 percent cut to the Kansan’s funding caused the newspaper to eliminate 13 paid student positions, and the newspaper has been unable to fill the vacant position of its full-time news adviser.

The Student Press Law Center, a college journalism advocacy group, and Mark Johnson — the chairman of the Kansan Board of Directors and an attorney — reached out to KU officials saying the content-based decision violated the First Amendment.

The lawsuit states Gray-Little and Durham, who was tasked with approving the student fees budget, did not intervene but signed off on the 2015-16 budget.

The Kansan editors are asking for the court to declare the funding decision violated the U.S. and Kansas constitutions. They’re also seeking a preliminary injunction against Gray-Little and Durham that prohibits them from enforcing the reduction of the newspaper’s funding or enforcing further retaliatory reductions in the 2016-17 budget. The plaintiffs are also asking for nominal damages, payment of attorneys’ fees and costs and any additional relief the court thinks appropriate.

Officials at KU could not immediately be reached for comment Friday evening.