A Fight For a Free Press

Students, alums and faculty join forces to protect First Amendment Rights
Minnesota Daily offices 1982

Forty years ago, The Minnesota Daily published its finals week satire edition just like it always did—except this time, it ended in a lawsuit.

The incendiary story involved recreating part of Jesus’ crucifixion on the Mall, along with an advice column from Jesus that included obscene language and references to illegal drugs.

“There was a firestorm of upset,” said attorney Marshall Tanick—an alum (B.A. ’69) and former Daily reporter himself—who represented the Daily during the court battle. The Minnesota legislature held hearings. Letters poured in.

The Regents were being pressured “to do some-thing, to punish someone,” Tanick said. So they did: In a 9-3-1 vote, the Regents voted to make the student portion of Daily funding optional—essentially, students could now specifically opt out of funding the Daily from their student fees. Though the number of students who opted out was small, and the percentage of the Daily’s budget that came from fees also not particularly significant, the editors concluded that the overall effect on the Daily staff was a chilling one, stifling free speech. So, they took the U to court. The case became Stanley vs. McGrath, a case that is still used in courtrooms today.

The wheels of justice turned slowly and the trial was lengthy. By the time Chris Ison (B.A. ’83) became editor of the Daily in the ’82-’83 academic year, the original editors had graduated or otherwise moved on, but the case was still alive. “I had joined the suit, got attached as a plaintiff, and went to court that year,” he said. “I feel like I inherited a great opportunity to represent the Daily in a suit that other very courageous people had set on its course. It allowed me to really learn about what the First Amendment meant, and how important it is to journalists being able to do their work without fear of repercussions.”

“We knew the content was pretty explosive and hard for some people to get past,” he acknowledged. “But we knew the First Amendment should protect us from any kind of punitive action.”

Despite a lack of local media support—and, in fact, strong opposition—Harrison Salisbury (B.A. ’30), a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The New York Times and former Daily reporter, appeared in court to support the student journalists, which impressed both Tanick and Ison, and they hoped, the judge. But the judge ruled against the Daily. That led to an appeal in the Eighth Circuit Court, where Tanick once again argued the punishment exacted on the Daily created a chilling effect and violated their First Amendment rights. The U argued they had to preserve their funding from the legislature and that their actions were appropriate.

Ison recalled that while local media was not supportive, Murphy Hall professors were. Professor Donald Gillmor, among other distinguished professors, argued that it was also a matter of academic freedom in an amicus brief to the court. 

“The humor issue defined the j-school’s advocacy for journalism and that of a lot of academic community at the U…It wasn’t a given they would support this suit, and certainly wasn’t a given they would support the appeal. A lot of people really stepped up in support of the Daily’s First Amendment rights at several stages—and that was vital to winning the case,” Ison said. “It cost money to sue and appeal and it showed their belief in the free press. It was really inspiring to see that.”

In the end, the judges ruled in favor of the Daily. The suit was seeking remuneration for the lost fees—about $15,000—and to cover its significant legal costs, plus an injunction barring the Regents from ever going this route again. The University appealed to the Supreme Court, but eventually settled with the Daily, meeting its demands. Tanick and his colleagues used part of the money to establish a First Amendment Fund, setting up forums and symposiums about First Amendment issues in “the good old Murphy Hall auditorium,” as well as providing scholarship money to students interested in both journalism and law.

The case opened up a lot of litigation, from student fees to equity in perspectives. “A lot of the litigation draws upon this idea: to what extent should students or public funds support organizations that have some type of ideological bent to it? The Daily case was the forerunner to that movement,” Tanick said. The case itself “was probably the high point of my semi-illustrious career, for many reasons. It’s not often you get a chance to litigate interesting, important First Amendment issues that I learned about at Murphy Hall, and that was very rewarding,” he said.

Ison, who went on to become a long-time instructor at the Hubbard School before retiring in 2021, said the suit echoed through his lessons to his own students. “I did occasionally remind them how hard some of their predecessors pushed for the right for them to publish what they want—and that comes with responsibility, and also means you have to do good work and for the right reasons, and not abuse that right we have.” 

By Katie Dohman