It’s been a tough few days for the First Amendment.

Between our university and our county government, it’s hard to figure out which is the most ham-handed and well, in the interest of complete accuracy, stupid.

Most of all, both institutions have lost any sense of proportionality, and as a result, they are feeding narratives of clumsy power structures that get so caught up in getting their way and winning that they forget that their first responsibility is to wield its authority carefully.  authority.

At this point, University of Memphis and Shelby County Government are in a dead heat for the gold medal for being the most inept public organizations at handling issues defined by its fundamental fairness.  More than anything, it speaks loudly about the core values of both, and they do nothing to propel academic freedom and good government.

Guilty as Charged

The evidence that the cut in funding for the University of Memphis student newspaper, the Daily Helmsman, is directly tied to its coverage is overwhelming, and as a result, it is a clear First Amendment violation.

It’s the nexus between cuts in funding and content that has produced court rulings defining this as a First Amendment issue, and although the university tries to put a good face on its egregious action by claiming that it’s not a legal violation, we can’t imagine that it would waste its money, time, and image to win a court case so thin on the facts.

The University of Memphis cut in its funding is merely the latest in the university’s campaign against the Helmsman.  For some time, the U of M has made life difficult for the reporters of the student newspaper, and it’s no wonder, considering how out of touch Dean of Students Steve Peterson is when it comes to basic understanding of journalism.

He complains that the Helmsman has written about things that “have little relevance” and only touched “very, very few students on the campus.”  He and others have suggested that the newspaper needs to be the voice of the students, and in this role, it should be a promoter and cheerleader for all things related to student government and the administration.

It’s a Newspaper, Stupid

That’s not journalism.  That’s boosterism.

Thankfully, the Helmsman is not the SGA mouthpiece.  It’s also not the PR organ for the university.  The editors and reporters at The Helmsman have upheld the standards of their profession, and any objective analysis of the Helmsman’s coverage shows that it has done a formidable job of covering events at the U of M.

Sadly, at a time when the U of M should celebrate the fact that it has a 81-year-old student newspaper that is independent and journalistically sound, it instead seems to be focused on payback for articles it’s found to be inconvenient and uncomfortable, chiefly the Helmsman’s assertive coverage of crime on campus.

Reporter Harassment

Jim Willis, former associate publisher/editor at The Commercial Appeal and editor/president at Birmingham Post-Herald, said: “UM administrators have suggested having Chelsea arrested for interviewing students on campus streets and or disciplined for her efforts to interview the UM police director about one of the on-campus sexual assaults. Although a complaint was filed with Judicial Affairs at UM, and it was dismissed, you can imagine that such an effort might be designed to have a chilling effect on the journalistic efforts of a student editor.

“Another sexual assault case in March pointed out Clery Act (The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act or Clery Act) violations when UM police failed to warn students even though the suspect was a registered sex offender and had been living illegally in student housing and next door to a day care center.  A false police report also was filed wrongly accusing Chelsea and staff member Christopher Whitten of threatening campus police and behaving in a disruptive manner at the campus police office the night they were seeking information on the on-campus rape.

“That report was distributed by the administration to numerous UM administrators without ever giving Chelsea or Christopher the opportunity to dispute the false report. Chelsea’s effort to set the record straight was never acknowledged by university officials. An FOI request to review security camera video at the campus police lobby to prove there had been no disruption was met with the response that no video tape existed.”

Meanwhile, SGA President Tyler Dewitt has gone so far as to suggest that the SGA should share decision-making about the content in the Helmsman.  Our prediction is that if this is done, the newspaper will become exactly like those PR tools that pass for newspapers on other campuses that no one reads except self-satisfied SGA leaders and administration officials.

Here’s the thing: Helmsman editor Chelsea Boozer is doing exactly what she was taught in journalism classes, and her skill at it is underscored by being named College Journalist of the Year by the Southeast Journalism Conference.

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

Perhaps, the only thing worse than trying to muzzle the press is muzzling the public, and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners – by an 8-5 vote – are backing a subpoena for information about commenters on The Commercial Appeal articles.

Most disturbing of all is that commissioners who profess to be civil libertarians are leading the charge.  Meanwhile, Commissioner Terry Roland submitted a resolution opposing the subpoena and he rightly called it “wrong, wrong, wrong,” and Commissioner Chris Thomas termed it “outrageous.”

The subpoena is crucial, according to its supporters, for determining whether any of the people commenting on the CA website made racially tinged remarks said the same thing to Nashville legislators supporting the referendum to establish municipal school districts.

The Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck understated it when he called it a “fishing expedition.”  The subpoena is, in a word, specious, and while we find any racially-tinged comments abhorrent (and God knows the CA is rife with anonymous ones), the First Amendment guarantees our right to be wrong in our opinions.

Big Brother

If the attorneys for the county commissioners want to see what messages state legislators were getting from their constituents, they should file a FOIA request for the legislators’ emails.  The circuitous, intrusive route through The Commercial Appeal is big brother at its worst and a waste of public money.

Promises that the identities of the CA commenters will be protected have about as much value as the logic of the subpoena itself.  We live in the world of Wikileaks and the notion that information can be kept secret is about as mythical as collaboration on the board of commissioners.

Like the U of M controversy, Shelby County Government may be within its legal rights to do what it’s going, but the heavy-handed nature of it with government invading the privacy of citizens should have ruled it out as a reasonable option.  Given the chance to abandon this ill-conceived subpoena, a majority of the board of commissioners doubled down yesterday and voted in favor of pursuing it.

The subpoena asks for the names, addresses, and phone numbers of people who have commented on stories about the city-county school merger and plans by the towns to establish their own districts.

County commissioner Steve Mulroy is right that the opposition by his Tea Party colleagues is “all about whose ox is being gored.”  And when that ox is privacy and First Amendment rights for free expression, all of us are being gored. We’re on board if The Commercial Appeal wants to create a legal defense fund to mount a vigorous fight against it.