Rutgers University’s daily student paper lost its financial backing last month, after a conservative group that called the paper “fake news” led a two-year campaign to defund it. Now a major campus civil liberties organization is calling the defunding unconstitutional.
Rutgers’ Daily Targum is the country’s second-oldest college paper. Every three years, the university holds a student referendum on whether to renew the Targum’s funding. In 2017, Rutgers’ Conservative Union launched a #DefundTheTargum campaign, after the Targum accused the group’s leader of basing recruitment material on white supremacist propaganda. When the Targum lost its funding referendum in May, the group declared victory.
The Conservative Union might have celebrated too soon. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a prominent non-profit for civil liberties in education says Rutgers’ referendum process might have violated the Targum’s First Amendment rights and the paper could sue Rutgers.
The 150-year-old paper was experiencing a new, Trump-era onslaught from a right-wing campus group. In 2017, the Targum revealed that the president of the Conservative Union had modeled the group’s recruitment flyers off those used by Vanguard America, a violent white supremacist group. (James Fields Jr. marched with Vanguard America before murdering an anti-racist protester with his car at a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Members of Vanguard America have since rebranded as the neo-Nazi group Patriot Front.)
The Conservative Union posters copied Vanguard America’s design, with “TAKE YOUR COUNTRY BACK” in bold letters under a diagonal American flag. The posters shared a similar recruitment pitch. The Conservative Union swapped out some of Vanguard America’s more overtly racist language about “globalist traitors are destroying your race and heritage through open borders,” and opted for slightly more coded language claiming that “globalist traitors have opened our borders to the third world.”
Initially, the group’s president told the Targum that he’d used a Microsoft Word template, and come up with the flyer’s language on his own. He later told NJ.com that he’d copied the template from American Vanguard because he liked their design. “Other than that, no reason at all,” he said. Neither the Conservative Union nor its then-president returned The Daily Beast’s requests for comment on Facebook.
The Conservative Union blasted the Targum as “fake news,” and launched the #DefundTheTargum campaign, which it now claims was a bid “not to destroy the paper, but to give more freedom and more choice to the already over charged Rutgers student … If you don’t use a service, and don’t like what’s being offered, there is no reason to pay for it.”
The Targum has won every referendum since the votes began in 1980. The referendum requires at least 25 percent of all students to vote in favor of funding the paper. But voter turnout was low in the May referendum, with approximately 25 percent of all students showing up to vote. The Targum would have needed almost every one of them to vote in favor of funding, but only 68 percent did.
Adam Goldstein, a FIRE program officer, said it’s difficult to determine whether the Conservative Union’s campaign was the death knell for the Targum’s funding, because most of the failed referendum came down to low turnout.
“Part of that is the way the referendum was structured,” Goldstein told The Daily Beast. “The Conservative Student Union wasn’t saying ‘go vote against the Targum.’ They were saying ‘either vote against the Targum or don’t vote at all.’ Because they knew failure to meet the 25 percent voting threshold would be functionally the same as everyone voting against the Targum.”
But the campaign is a case study in why schools cannot leave their student funding up to referendum vote, said Goldstein, who pointed to a previous Supreme Court case that slapped down referendum voting for student-activity funding at the University of Wisconsin.
When schools collect student activity fees, they put them in a funding pool for all student groups and “disseminate them in a viewpoint-neutral way,” Goldstein said. “So really nobody’s funding things they disagree with, directly; they’re funding a pool of money everybody can reach into, regardless of their viewpoint. That benefits whatever the ideology of the individual student. Whatever it is, they’re ideological groups have the money equally available.”
In the case of the University of Wisconsin, the Supreme Court found that referendums on individual groups’ funding destroyed the viewpoint-neutral system. FIRE argues the system Rutgers has used since 1980, which the Conservative Union campaigned on, is unconstitutional.
Rutgers said it’s looking into its funding process.
“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),” a university spokesperson said.
The university suggested that it might look for a new way to support the Targum.
“Rutgers Student Affairs staff is communicating with Targum student leaders to determine how the university can help to ensure the Targum continues to serve as an independent voice in the university community,” a spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
Until then, the paper is trying to raise $100,000 on GoFundMe.
The paper’s other recourse is to take the university to court over its First Amendment rights.
“I’m cautiously optimistic they won’t have to do that, just based on the fact that the Targum’s been around for 150 years,” Goldstein said. “With a relationship that long, they must have hit some bumps before.”