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Stonewalling the Student Press?

The Helmsman struggles with budget cuts and a tight-lipped administration.

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Her journalism professors at the University of Memphis consider senior Chelsea Boozer a model student.

She is editor in chief of the university's student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, has a 3.8 GPA, and the Southeast Journalism Conference has named her "College Journalist of the Year." She's currently undertaking a prestigious summer internship at Scripps Howard Foundation Wire in Washington, D.C.

Student Press Law Center director Frank LoMonte has described Boozer as "Mike Wallace with molasses syrup, disarming, but deadly." In her years working for the Helmsman, her professors say Boozer has been nothing short of relentless in her pursuit of the truth.

Yet, as she begins her last semester at the U of M, Boozer is facing an uphill battle. In May, Helmsman funding was slashed by $25,000 for the upcoming year — enough to cause the paper's staff to consider cutting back from a daily paper to a weekly.

A First Amendment debate is raging on campus between Helmsman staff and journalism professors, who believe the cuts were made based on the paper's content, and the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee, which claims the funding cuts were part of an overall cut across the board for student activities.

The Daily Helmsman focuses on covering campus crime and other hard news. But some members of the activity fee committee, which provides much of the paper's funding, have complained that the paper should be devoting more space to campus-sponsored events and activities.

The paper's budget struggles and whether cuts were content-related have garnered national attention. Society of Professional Journalists president John Ensslin expressed his "profound dismay" over the cuts in a letter addressed to U of M president Shirley Raines last week.

Also last week, Raines launched an investigation into the cuts. But the trouble between the university administration and Boozer dates back to March, when police reports were taken as Boozer and reporter Christopher Whitten attempted to gather news related to a campus rape.

"I don't think the university made the student government cut the funding to punish Chelsea Boozer for reporting on rape, but if they don't turn this thing around and straighten it out, it is a reasonable inference that they are doing this because of their hostility to the newspaper's coverage," LoMonte said.

The conflict between the administration and journalism students and faculty at the U of M has incensed some journalism alumni, many of whom claim the attempt at censoring real news in favor of fluff has been a long-standing problem.

"The Helmsman can assist the university in its obligation to inform students of any possible threat to them on campus," said Jim Willis, a U of M journalism alumni board member and a former associate publisher and editor of The Commercial Appeal. "Yet it's an avenue for whatever reason that the [administration] has decided to stonewall rather than take advantage of."

In Pursuit of the Truth

Boozer is no stranger to struggling with the U of M administration in pursuit of controversial stories. Since she began her term at the Helmsman in 2010, she's often had to fight to access public documents.

She's angered faculty and Student Government Association (SGA) officials with stories that uncovered free tuition benefits for SGA members and a football program that loses money every year. When she makes open-records requests from the legal department, Boozer says she often faces "hostility" from the department's staff.

"But [the hostility] was never publicly acted on until we did a rape story in March," Boozer said.

In March, the Helmsman staff learned about a rape that had occurred on campus in November. When a reporter filed an open-records request with the campus legal department, she was told the report would not be released.

Administration officials claimed the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects students from having their education records released, prevented them from sharing the report. But Boozer informed the university that the Clery Act, which requires universities that receive federal financial aid to disclose information on crimes that occur on or near campus, mandated the report's release.

Boozer and the reporter set up a meeting between the campus legal department and campus Police Services, but the meeting ended with the administration refusing to release the report. That's when LoMonte stepped in and wrote a letter to the university, outlining the reasons why the Clery Act required its release.

It wasn't the first time the U of M has been accused of a Clery Act violation. An audit by the U.S. Department of Education last November found that the U of M had possibly violated the Clery Act when it failed to warn students of the 2007 murder of football player Taylor Bradford in a timely manner.

"In some cases, [reporters] have been denied documents they had a right to because the people who had possession of those documents didn't know any better. It took some education to get them to understand that the Helmsman had a right to the documents. But I don't think there's an overall university policy to mess with the Helmsman," said Richard Ranta, dean of the U of M's College of Communications and Fine Arts.

The rape report was eventually released, and a piece on the open-records dispute by Helmsman reporter Michelle Corbet ran in the paper on March 27th.

"The night before that story ran, we found out about another rape on campus that had happened in March," Boozer said. "The university didn't tell us, even though we had a reporter at Police Services that day looking through the police crime log."

That alleged rape involved 23-year-old Cortney "Cortez" Adkins, a registered sex offender, who was posing as a student and living illegally in student housing at the Carpenter Complex. He was arrested for allegedly attempting to remove the pants of a female student and penetrating her with his finger.

A story on that rape by reporter Christopher Whitten ran on March 27th as well. But the story didn't come easily. Both Boozer and Whitten ran into trouble with campus police twice as they attempted to gather information on the rape.

"When we called Police Services, it was after hours. The guy on the phone told Chris to come over and talk to a supervisor. Chris asked me to go with him," Boozer said.

When the two arrived at Police Services, Boozer says they were told Sergeant Black, the supervisor, had left. They were advised to return during business hours. Police Services' and Boozer's accounts of what happened next varies. Boozer said that she then asked if there was any way to reach Police Services director Bruce Harber at home. She said the officer on duty, Jermaine Wilson, instead phoned deputy director Derek Myers, who also advised the pair to come back the next day.

But Wilson claims in a police report filed on Boozer and Whitten that the two "grew angry and began stating, 'The director will want to speak with us, and if he doesn't, we can make the department look bad.'" The report claims the two began pacing back and forth chanting, "He is gonna want to speak with us" before storming out of the building.

Boozer says the allegations in the report are false, and she claims the memo harmed the reputation of the Helmsman.

The next day, Boozer and Whitten were attempting to interview students in the Carpenter Complex about the rape. Boozer says the students invited her and Whitten inside to talk. As they were interviewing the students, resident assistant Rebecca Day asked the two to leave.

"I said, 'I'm a student here, so I can stay, but thanks,'" Boozer said. "She said, 'I work for the university. You need to leave.'"

Boozer and Whitten stood their ground, and Day left. Day called police to report the incident. In the police report of the incident, Day claimed, "both reporters became rude and almost hostile, stating that they were reporters and they go to school here and they weren't leaving."

Members of the news media are not permitted to enter student residence areas, according to U of M policy. But Boozer claims that policy doesn't apply if a student invites the reporters in. U of M legal counsel Sheri Lipman backs up that claim.

"If a student wants to invite anyone into their residence, they can do that," Lipman said. "I think there may be a factual issue [in Boozer's] case. But certainly, it is not against policy for a student to make whatever decisions they want to about their home."

When asked what she meant by a "factual issue," Lipman said, "Obviously, someone called Police Services, so someone didn't want them there."

Lipman pointed out that police reports are different from charges. No charges were ever made against Boozer or Whitten.

"Whenever Police Services is called, the documents are reviewed and they decide if other police action needs to be taken," Lipman said. "Obviously, the answer in that situation was no, because nothing else happened. The reports are also reviewed by our Judicial Affairs office to see if there's any violation of our code of student conduct."

Following those reports, however, Residence Life director Peter Groenendyk and Ben Morton from Judicial Affairs visited Helmsman faculty adviser Candace Justice.

"They said they had been copied on a discussion about possibly arresting [Boozer]," Justice said. "Morton said she would not be [arrested] because he had decided that it's not going to go forward. They both said it seemed beyond belief that anyone would make a scene in the police department and refuse to leave. They said the report didn't ring true."

Lipman says she didn't know about any arrest threat. "We generally don't threaten to arrest people. Either we arrest people or we don't," Lipman said.

Boozer wrote a letter to President Raines, claiming both reports were false, but she never received a reply. LoMonte wrote a scathing letter to Raines, accusing the administration of attempting "to intimidate an outstanding student journalist." He pointed out that the accusations against Boozer were made around the same time that she published an open letter to Police Services criticizing the department for failing to notify students of the March rape. Raines did reply to LoMonte, but her letter backed up the police reports.

"The University prides itself on its students," Raines wrote. "Included within that group is, of course, our student journalists at The Daily Helmsman. We have a difference of opinion from time to time about legal issues or the angles they take on stories. ... However, from the administrative side, these differences have always been professional, never personal. Ms. Boozer has nothing to fear from Police Services, as our officers will always act professionally in their work to protect her and the entire campus."

Justice, who has served as an adviser at the Helmsman for two decades, still believes both reports contained false information pertaining to Boozer's and Whitten's behavior.

"This is the first time in my 20 years here that a student editor has personally been harassed. I don't know how else you can interpret that," Justice said. "This is something to try and take away the courage of the editor."

Joe Hayden, associate professor of journalism, is outraged.

"This is unconscionable with a model student, who is only doing what we've taught her to do," Hayden said. "To go after her for doing her job is outrageous. They should be applauding her, not making her life more difficult. It's a moronic view of public relations to punish people who are putting out information that needs to be put out."

LoMonte, who deals with controversies surrounding the rights of the student press for colleges across the country, called the police reports "especially heavy-handed."

"We have seen the disciplinary system used on a number of occasions against college journalists when somebody is aggrieved by what they've been writing," LoMonte said. "But it's normally not at a college as large and sophisticated as Memphis."

First Amendment Folly?

In May, the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee notified Justice that the Helmsman would be receiving $50,000 in student activity fees, which are paid by all students who takes courses on campus.

That was $30,000 less than the Helmsman asked for when Justice presented the newspaper's 2012-2013 budget request in April. It's one-third less than the $75,000 the committee awarded the paper the previous year.

Although the Helmsman makes some of its operating budget through ad sales, the student activity fee funds the paper's printing costs.

"The money we get from the activity fee keeps us from having to sell the newspaper," Justice said. "It helps pay our printing bill, and it helps us to distribute the paper to 75 locations around campus, so that every student can have a free paper."

Without that money, Justice says the Helmsman might have to cut back from printing four days a week to printing three. In a worst-case scenario, she said they might have to cut back to a weekly release.

Total requests, from groups ranging from the SGA to the school's art museum, for the student activity fee this year totaled $1.9 million, but the projection for available funds was almost $1.6 million. The committee — made up of four administrators and three students, two of whom are from the SGA — cut funding for 11 of the 15 groups that made requests. The Helmsman and the art museum saw the largest budget cuts, while the SGA's budget was increased by nearly $59,000. The SGA actually asked for $191,500 more than it requested last year. The budget approved for an SGA-sponsored orientation program called Frosh Camp jumped from $90,000 the previous year to $165,000.

"If the SGA Frosh Camp had not gotten their increase, there would have been $66,000 left over, even after giving everyone what they got last year," Boozer said.

A letter mailed to the groups that requested funding mentioned that almost all funding allocations had to be reduced because more money was requested, but 61.7 percent of that increase came from the budget request of the SGA. Two members of the SGA have a vote on the activity fee funding committee. The SGA is the only group that receives student activity fee funding and that is represented on the committee.

Helmsman staff and some journalism professors believe the cuts were based on the newspaper's often critical reporting on the university.

Shortly after the budget cuts were announced, Boozer and Justice scheduled a meeting with dean of students Steve Peterson, who sat on the committee.

In a recording made of the meeting by Boozer, Peterson recounts the discussion from the budget committee meeting. He said members discussed examples of Helmsman stories "that seemed to have very little relevance or that seemed to touch very, very few students on campus."

For example, he mentioned a piece the Helmsman ran on a student Marxist group, with a small membership. He also said some committee members complained that the Helmsman didn't cover an SGA-sponsored campus event that featured former presidential candidates Fred Thompson and Howard Dean. Boozer countered that a reporter had been assigned to attend that event but was pulled to work on the March rape story, which was breaking news.

Peterson's assistant told the Flyer he could not comment on the student activity fee or the committee meeting.

Requests for interviews were referred to Linda Bonnin, vice president for communications, public relations, and marketing, who would only release the following statement: "The University of Memphis remains committed to both the First Amendment and our long history of having an independent student newspaper. We recognize that all university funding decisions related to the student newspaper should be made regardless of content, whether these decisions are made by students, faculty, or staff."

"Tyler DeWitt, the former SGA president, sat on this committee. Since that meeting, Tyler has been outspokenly disapproving of the Helmsman," Boozer said.

Boozer said she met with DeWitt after the budget cuts were announced, and he told her that student organizations should be able to write press releases, have the Helmsman staff copy-edit them and print them in the paper.

DeWitt told the Flyer he'd been advised by the university's legal department not to talk about the budget cuts. Current SGA president Russell Born echoed that statement. "The message that comes through to me is they see us like a high school paper," Justice said.

"At a public university, there can't be a connection between an editor's discretionary judgments and the level of funding," LoMonte said. "Those two things have to exist on separate sides of a wall. The First Amendment says the government can't discriminate based on the speaker's content or viewpoint. If you're determining whether the paper gets funded based on content, you're stepping over the First Amendment."

Although Raines originally signed off on the committee's budget cuts, she's now opened an investigation into whether the committee violated the First Amendment or not. She's assigned her executive assistant David Cox to oversee the investigation.

"We're meeting with each of the committee members, and it will involve a representative from the Helmsman observing the process. We'll start as soon as everyone is available," Cox said.

After news of the possible First Amendment violation broke, Willis started an email mailing list to update other alumni of the situation. In his emails, he also mentioned the police reports regarding Boozer's and Whitten's news gathering in March and the problems the Helmsman had been having with the school administration attempting to shield crime documents from the press.

The responses he received from former Helmsman reporters and editors shocked him. Some, whose days at the Helmsman dated back to the 1970s, said they had similar problems convincing the university to release documents they were required by law to release.

"Michael Thompson said he went through the same battles with campus police and the administration on making campus police reports available when he was editor in the '90s," Willis said.

Some of the alumni on Willis' mailing list pledged to make donations to the Helmsman to reduce the damage caused by budget cuts. Since those emails were sent out, the Helmsman has received two $500 donations and pledges of two more $500 donations. A website, freethehelmsman.com, has been set up to take donations.

Willis said he's also working with alumni to establish an endowment that would allow the Helmsman to be financially independent of the university.

"At some point soon, we'll formally launch a fund drive to achieve that end," Willis said. "That's a long-term solution. It would take a huge endowment to give them the money they would need each year to supplement what they get now from student activity fees."

In the short term, however, Willis is hoping the investigation into a First Amendment violation will result in Raines restoring the $25,000 cut from the Helmsman budget. He'd also like her to set up a trust that would avoid what he calls a "conflict of interest" with the current student activity fee funding system.

As it stands, Justice must request funding from administrators and SGA members, whom the paper regularly reports on. That coverage is not always favorable.

"You can imagine yourself having to go before someone you had written a negative story about and having to ask them for money," Justice said. "What reporter or editor would ever want to be in that situation?"

As for Boozer, she'll be starting her last semester as editor of the Helmsman. If there's a silver lining to be found in the struggles she'll face in her last months of college, LoMonte says, if nothing else, this will make her stronger.

Said LoMonte: "I suppose you could thank the university for providing you with the adversity that will toughen you up and make you a better reporter."

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