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Heath Urie says that for as long as he's been with the Mirror, the University of Northern Colorado's student newspaper, of which he is currently editor, "I have seen nothing but the utmost integrity in journalism ethics from our editors and our reporting staff. All of our stories have been nothing but the truth, with as many facts as we can get from all sides."
If he's right, the Mirror's present circumstances demonstrate that sometimes veracity can stir up a whole lot of trouble.
During the just-concluded school year, the Mirror ran a number of negative stories about UNC's Student Representative Council, which it accused of, among other things, violating the Colorado Open Meetings Law on three occasions, beginning in September 2003. A trio of Mirror supervisors -- Urie, managing editor Chris Marcheso and outgoing editor Jessica Perciante -- eventually grew frustrated by what they saw as the SRC's failure to properly address these complaints, which were detailed in letters sent on the journalists' behalf by Denver attorney Eileen Kiernan-Johnson. As such, they filed suit against the council and its president, Steve Gustafson, in Weld County District Court on April 28, asking that the SRC meetings in question be declared legally null and void.
UNC director of media relations Gloria Reynolds refers queries about the lawsuit -- which will be discussed during a May 20 status conference -- to the Colorado Attorney General's office. Beyond confirming that the state will represent the SRC, Ken Lane, spokesman for the AG's office, keeps mum.
The suit hardly marks the first run-in between the council and the Mirror, a free publication that produces three editions per week (one a week during the summer), and has a circulation of around 7,000. Several weeks earlier, the SRC trimmed the Mirror's funding by approximately $15,000, more than a third of the amount it received from the university the previous year. In an April 8 Greeley Tribune article, SRC member Jory Taylor suggested that the move was justified because other campus groups used student fees to purchase advertising in the newspaper, thereby making the Mirror guilty of double-dipping.
Repeated attempts were made to contact Taylor and Gustafson for this column, but they couldn't be reached for comment. However, Paula Cobler, an adjunct professor with UNC's journalism and mass communication department, who serves as the Mirror's general manager and advisor, feels that the double-dipping claim is "totally transparent. It's one of the most ridiculous arguments I've ever heard."
Urie and Marcheso say their legal action shouldn't be seen as retaliation against the SRC for the budget reduction, and Kiernan-Johnson confirms that the process of drafting the suit was under way well before the council made its move. As for the cuts, the Mirror editors believe the SRC used them as punishment for negative stories. Says Urie, "It was definitely an attack on the newspaper." He's equally critical of other choices made by the SRC. For instance, the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, a campus organization devoted to progressive causes, had its funding reduced to zero, whereas club sports at the university, and the SRC itself, received sizable increases.
Fortunately for the Mirror, the SRC doesn't deliver the final verdict on funding. The university's board of trustees, a group of eight area residents and one student representative (the aforementioned Taylor), must sign off on all the SRC's budgetary decrees and can alter those it dislikes. With that in mind, Urie and company engaged Denver attorney Jim Hubbell to outline why the Mirror's budget shouldn't be slashed. (Hubbell came aboard because Kiernan-Johnson's firm, Faegre & Benson, represents the Colorado Rockies, co-owned by board chairman Dick Monfort. Both Kiernan-Johnson and Hubbell, who occasionally handles legal matters for Westword, are working pro bono.) In a letter to the board, Hubbell cited several cases in which courts struck down attempts to stifle student newspapers, and he made it clear that Mirror journalists won't hesitate to fight back if things go south. The board, Hubbell wrote, "likely does not wish to become embroiled in a First Amendment legal battle."
That assumption may be shaky. On May 4, Urie and Cobler pleaded their case at a trustees meeting. Afterward, says UNC's Reynolds, the board requested that university general counsel Ron Lambden address the following subject at their next gathering: "If we were to put out a request for proposals to run a student newspaper, how would we go about doing that?"
To Urie, this turn of events was shocking. "If they're talking about letting businesses bid for the paper, we would bid, too, because we would want to continue to represent the students," he says. "But we would lose, because we don't have enough funding."
Reynolds notes that the board also asked general counsel Lambden to detail "the university's relationship with the Mirror, because I think it's fair to say the history is unclear." It's long, too. The Mirror bowed in 1919, when UNC was still called Colorado State Teachers College. In 1989, the paper became a nonprofit corporation, the Student Media Corp., governed by a board of directors.
This switch didn't represent a total divorce from the university because of the continued funding link, not to mention corporation bylaws that call for the board to include three UNC students, three UNC employees and two professional journalists appointed by the UNC president. With connections this close, the Mirror probably couldn't file suit against the SRC, because that would be tantamount to the university suing itself -- the same reason that Mesa State College's Megan Fromm recently sued the institution's board of trustees as an individual instead of under the auspices of the MSC Criterion, which she edits ("Learning Curve," March 18). The distinction was apparently lost on the Denver Post, which headlined a May 1 offering about the lawsuit "UNC Paper Sues to Open Meetings."