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Rutgers University Accused of Unconstitutionally Defunding a Student Newspaper

The Daily Targum, Rutgers’s 150-year-old student newspaper, is struggling for financial survival after it lost most of its funding in a recent student referendum.

The Daily Targum (courtesy the newspaper)

The future of Rutgers University’s independent student newspaper the Daily Targum hangs on the balance after it was defunded in a student referendum held at the New Brunswick campus in New Jersey. The newspaper failed to garner the required amount of votes needed to continue its funding, but a nonprofit group is questioning the constitutional legality of the referendum.

“We do not know what the future holds, but the Targum Publishing Company’s Board of Trustees and staff will be working to address this funding crisis,” the Daily Targum said in a statement on the situation. Melissa Hayes, an alumni member of the Daily Targum’s Board of Trustees told nj.com that the failed vote will cost the paper $540,000 next school year, close to 70% of its roughly $800,000 budget.

The Daily Targum started printing at Rutgers in 1869. The paper relies on an $11.25 per-semester fee collected from students.  This is the first time it has lost the referendum since it became independent in 1980.

To pass the referendum, the Targum needed to collect “Yes” votes from at least 25% of eligible voters in each of the university’s schools. Sandy Giacobbe, a junior at Rutgers and the Daily Targum‘s business manager, told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation that low participation in the referendum was the main reason for the newspaper’s failure to collect the votes. “A lot of people were not aware of the referendum,” he said, adding that 70% of the eligible voters did not participate. A majority of the 30% who have participated in the referendum did indeed vote in favor of funding the Daily Targum, Giacobbe said, but the numbers did not stack up to the required amount.

The Daily Targum‘s problems, however, were not limited to student apathy. In January 2017, a student group named the Rutgers Conservative Union launched the campaign #DefundTheTargum while accusing the newspaper of spreading “fake news.” The group objected a Targum article which revealed that one of its members published flyers mimicking those created by American Vanguard, a white nationalist group.

Following the release of the referendum results, the Rutgers Conservative Union wrote in a statement on Facebook that its campaign’s purpose was “not to destroy the paper, but to give more freedom and more choice to the already overcharged Rutgers student.” The campaign’s real purpose, the Conservative Union claimed, was “empowering the consumer.” However, the group did not express regret over the Targum’s loss of funds. “If you don’t use a service, and don’t like what’s being offered, there is no reason to pay for it,” the statement added.

On June 3, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), sent a letter to Rutgers demanding that it reverse the referendum’s results, and “implement a funding process that doesn’t subject student newspapers, or any other student organization, to layer upon layer of impermissible viewpoint discrimination.”

In the letter, FIRE claims that the decision to hold a referendum on the newspaper’s funding is itself a violation of the students’ First Amendment rights. “Court precedents forbid public colleges from distributing student activity fees by referenda,” the letter says, citing from a 1999 ruling on a similar case at the University of Wisconsin. The court ruled that access to a public forum does not depend upon majoritarian consent.

“The referendum procedure is unavailable to belief-based groups, such as political and religious organizations,” FIRE says in reference to Rutgers Conservative Union’s campaign to defund the Targum. “Whether the conservative group’s campaign changed a single vote is irrelevant, as the mere establishment of the voting system is unconstitutional even if the Targum won every vote,” FIRE’s Adam Goldstein added in a separate statement. “If a popular vote was a lawful method of defunding a student group, many voices — almost assuredly conservative ones included — would be silenced. Rutgers cannot permit any student group to lose funding because someone didn’t like what they published, and that’s all a referendum is: a heckler’s veto with extra steps,” he said.

FIRE also wrote Rutgers that its president has “unfettered power” to unilaterally approve or deny a student group’s request for a referendum, including for “viewpoint-discriminatory reasons.” Furthermore, the letter adds, a committee of the University Senate is charged with determining whether the “educational value of the organization justifies the proposed investment,” under Rutger’s policy. The “educational value” of the student newspaper has not been thoroughly considered, thus allowing a “biased funding determinations,” FIRE claims. “Rutgers cannot fulfill its obligation to respect the constitutional rights of its students by putting those rights to a popular vote,” the letter concludes.

In an email response to Hyperallergic, Rutgers University’s Office of Media Relations wrote, “The letter from FIRE was received and we’ll take a careful look at what the organization has to say about the referendum process that has been in place for nearly 40 years and provides funding for the Targum as well as for NJPIRG (New Jersey Public Interest Research Group).”

The Targum joins a growing number of student-run college newspapers struggling for their survival. After the referendum, the paper set up a GoFundMe campaign. In the three years left until the next referendum, the Targum will scale back its circulation from six to four or fewer print editions a week, said Giacobbe. “We’re working with the budget to see what we can do to make sure that we are on campus as much as possible,” he said, “We will work to ensure that we always have freedom of press and freedom of speech at our institution.”

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