Turner’s death recalls Daily’s First Amendment victory

Turner helped to establish the First Amendment Fund, a program that awards scholarships.

The death of University of Minnesota Regents’ Professor Emeritus John E. Turner brings back memories of one of his most significant accomplishments during his long tenure at the school.

Turner passed away Oct. 5, within a week of the 22nd anniversary of the culmination of four years of litigation by the Daily challenging a punitive measure enacted by the Board of Regents. Professor Turner played a key role in that litigation, which was spawned when the newspaper published a “Finals Week” spoof at the end of the 1978-1979 school year. The publication lambasted University officials and practices, which was hardly unusual. But the flack stemmed from the use of a number of curse words, not frequently seen in newspapers at the time or since then, for that matter. To top matters off, the publication included a mock interview with a student, adorned as Jesus Christ appended to a crucifix on the wall, who advised students to take drugs and fornicate.

The issue created a firestorm. Calls from the governor’s office, the pulpits and the public urged to punish the students who were responsible and, perhaps, close the newspaper. The state Legislature held a hearing to condemn the newspaper and the students who operated it. The turmoil was not lost on the Regents, who ultimately enacted a measure to roll back the funding of the newspaper by converting the mandatory fees that subsidize about 15 percent of the publication to an optional system. In the words of then-University President Peter McGrath, the premise of the financial measure was to make the “newspaper more responsive and responsible,” a code phrase for censorship. The financial impact on the newspaper was slight, but the message was a sledgehammer.

The Daily had very few supporters in those days. The animosity was not confined to politicians and preachers. The mainstream media were noticeably silent, a few even antagonistic, to the Daily’s position that it should not be punished for exercising its freedom of expression, albeit somewhat offensively. Much of the media missed the message that the First Amendment is intended to protect unpopular, even unpleasant, views as well as those that are more accepted. Our law firm represented the Daily editors in a suit, claiming violation of the First Amendment. Two years later, after a lengthy trial, a federal judge in St. Paul ruled in the case titled Stanton v. McGrath that the University’s action did not violate their constitutional rights.

At this stage, Turner and some of his colleagues came to the rescue. As the Daily’s lawsuit was languishing, he helped organize a group of academics to support the Daily’s position, submitting an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief in support of the Daily’s position. Turner was not alone in the process. The late history professor Paul Murphy also was instrumental in the brief, which was drafted by the Regents’ Professor Donald Gillmore of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and joined by several other distinguished faculty members, including some Regents’ professors, such as Robert J. Gorlin.

The professor’s brief pointed out the chilling effect that the regential action had upon academic freedom in general. Setting aside the juvenile nature of portions of the publication, they focused upon the broader First Amendment implications of the potential action and the message it gave to the academic community that it stands to be punished if it express discordant views. While many others, including those in the media, ignored this issue, Turner and his colleagues got the point.

Thus, it also hit their target as the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and ruled in favor of the Daily, holding that the financial tinkering was improperly motivated by the context of the newspaper, which transgressed the right of freedom of the press. The punitive fee system was dismantled; the Daily was compensated for the financial loss it suffered, including substantial legal expenses. A portion of the attorney’s fees recovered was set aside by our law firm to establish the First Amendment Fund, a program that awards scholarships and sponsors educational programs about First Amendment issues, which is still going strong 22 years later.

The Daily is, too. For that, it has professor Turner and his courageous colleagues to thank. He organized his colleagues to support a principle that is central to academia: that freedom of expression warrants protection even for views that are ignoble. Turner should not be forgotten for his key role in this important legal principle.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Minneapolis attorney who represented the Daily in the Stanley litigation. Please send comments to [email protected]