Endorsements are part of Daily’s mission

On Nov. 2 the Daily’s editorial column was titled “Humphrey is the best choice for University.” It was not the only endorsement the editorial board ran; in fact, on the same page an editorial appeared recommending a vote against the hunting and fishing amendment. The previous Friday the board endorsed Martin Olav Sabo for U.S. Congressional District 5, and before that, Sheryl Ramstad Hvass for Hennepin County Attorney and Phyllis Kahn for District 59B in the state Legislature.
After the Kahn editorial ran, I received a letter from Joe Gustafson, a Minnesota Student Association representative. He made it clear the letter was not on behalf of MSA, but he felt that the Daily Editorial Board’s right to endorse political candidates should be questioned. Gustafson claimed that the Daily’s endorsement of Kahn ran afoul of the regulations covering student organizations that receive money from student services fees, and he invited the Daily to make amends by offering space to Kahn’s opponents, Eric Hanson and Robert Fowler, to refute the endorsement.
This letter took me somewhat by surprise. I knew there were regulations about what organizations receiving funds from student services fees could and could not do, but I didn’t think that the Daily’s running endorsements would violate those regulations. So I started investigating.
Daily editor in chief Nick Doty confirmed my initial reaction. The first thing to remember is that the Daily is independent from the University, he said, as is stated on page two of every one of our newspapers. He added that this autonomy means that we are exempt from any University regulations or policies.
Then I exchanged e-mail with Gustafson. He said, “Forced fee money cannot fund endorsement of political candidates or legislation. (The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group) and (the Student Legislative Coalition) can do so because their fee is optional. MSA cannot endorse legislation or candidates, and by that same standard, nor can The Minnesota Daily. When the Daily becomes financially independent of student fees, it is then free to endorse candidates and legislation. Until that time, it is forbidden from doing so, and therefore has broken the law.”
Gustafson’s arguments were logical, but I still could not believe that the Daily’s exercise of one of the major functions of a newspaper — promoting discussion of political issues, which our endorsements invariably do — could be illegal, even under restrictions on use of money received from student services fees.
So I called Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association and also for the Daily. When I outlined the situation for him, he said that he didn’t think the Daily was analogous to more ideologically oriented student organizations, such as those under consideration in the lawsuit against the University of Minnesota (La Raza Student Cultural Center, Queer Student Cultural Center and University YW — see “Groups to argue for intervention in fees lawsuit,” Oct. 30).
Endorsing candidates, Anfinson said, is something that is incidental to the Daily’s mission. That is, the Daily does not exist principally to support any one ideological or political position. Anfinson suggested that the Daily’s position might be more analogous to Boynton Health Service or intramural athletics.
Vicki Casey Larson, student services fees committee adviser at the Campus Involvement Center, said student services fees are mandatory and are considered an essential supplement to the education process. So the fees are out there to support extra-educational activities considered important to a well-rounded education.
Daily controller Tom Merriman also indicated that because the Daily is separated from the University accounting system, the University cannot dictate how we spend the money we get, as it can with other student organizations.
But Doty pointed out that even complete jurisdiction by the University could not prevent the Daily from endorsing candidates or publishing anything for that matter. To do so would be an act of prior restraint. As a newspaper, college or professional, we are protected under the First Amendment.
Doty mentioned three landmark court decisions dealing with the First Amendment as proof that the Daily is doing nothing wrong in endorsing candidates:
In The New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) it was forbidden for the government to prevent the media (college or professional) from publishing anything under any circumstances.
A 1979 case actually involved the Daily suing the University. University leaders amid an outraged Daily readership made student fees to fund the newspaper optional after the Daily published a satirical issue making fun of religious practices. It was ruled by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the University had unconstitutionally punished the paper because of offensive or distasteful content.
Perhaps the 1995 Supreme Court case Rosenberger v. the University of Virginia most directly applies to a partially student-funded newspaper’s right to endorse or print whatever it wishes. In this case Ron Rosenberger sued the university after the school refused to fund a Christian newspaper he founded because school administrators didn’t agree with the paper’s ideological content.
The court ruled in favor of Rosenberger, saying that it was clearly stated in the paper’s mission statement — which was published in the issue — of its promotion and manifestation of a certain religious ideology. The paper in no way misrepresented the university. Furthermore, a fee to which college students are forced to contribute that funds political or ideological groups is the university’s obligation to charge under principles of the First Amendment; it is meant to provide for the necessary complete college education.
Armed with these facts and opinions, I offer my own opinion about the Daily’s endorsement of candidates for political office: We are and should be free to endorse candidates of our choice. My reasoning follows.
The Daily is a training newspaper. We attempt to train our reporters and columnists on how to be good journalists, which involves providing them with experience in all aspects of news reporting — including political reporting, which can and does include making reasoned recommendations about elections for political office. And we try to instill in our reporters the importance of independence from authority and of willingness to speak one’s mind.
Gustafson’s arguments that endorsement is a form of forced speech, while thoughtful, don’t apply. If they do, the entire Daily would be a form of “forced speech.” Much of what the Daily provides in the form of news, opinions and editorials is controversial. Not even everyone at the Daily agrees with everything that appears in the paper every day. Anything a columnist or reporter writes is subject to the opinions of the readership. That’s how it should be. People disagree with things they see in Daily pages all the time, and we offer them several ways to tell us about it. The letters column and the Daily Forum are two ways that readers can let us know what they think. If we tried to censor ourselves every time we wrote something that might be controversial, there would be very, very little in the paper.
The Daily does receive money from the University, though the University does not tell us how to spend it. We get a substantial enough amount that losing it would significantly harm our newsroom. However, this money should not affect how we report on the University or on the community at large. We operate as an independent entity from the University, and we feel free to criticize it when appropriate. It comes down to the basics of liberal First Amendment theory: The press must be free. Free to comment on the world at large and free to bite the hand that feeds it, if necessary.
What would happen if the Daily took Gustafson’s position and did not endorse candidates in the next elections? Nothing readily apparent. Candidates would get elected with or without a Daily endorsement. But serious damage would have been done to the First Amendment. The Daily would have caved to outside pressure on what it could and could not print. That’s a prior restraint. Whether pressure comes from Gustafson, Mark Yudof or Bill Clinton doesn’t matter. The Daily should remain independent. Anything less would be a disservice to the First Amendment.

Genelle Belmas’ column appears every other Friday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 ext. 3282.