Recounting the tale of what has transpired during the past six months of Chelsea Boozer's life has become almost second nature for the University of Memphis senior. As editor-in-chief of the Daily Helmsman at the University of Memphis, the series of events that culminated in Boozer and her staff winning the Student Press Law Center's 2012 College Press Freedom Award mesh into one drama-filled saga. Boozer, a 21-year-old from Marion, Arkansas, will receive the award on November 3 at the National College Media Convention in Chicago.
Between March and September of this year, Boozer's life was in a state of tumult, to use Mitt Romney's favorite word. It all began March 28 – the day she published a column in the Helmsman calling out the University of Memphis' director of public safety for neglecting to issue a campus-wide safety alert after learning about an on-campus rape.
Two police reports were filed that day accusing her of misconduct. The first was for causing a "disturbance" when Boozer and another Helmsman reporter said that they would be "forced to make your department look bad," after being told the director and deputy director were unavailable to comment on the rape. The second was filed against Boozer for entering a dorm and a sorority house on campus and asking questions in a "rude and hostile" manner.
Subsequently, two university administrators met with her academic dean behind closed doors in an apparent effort to discredit her. Linda Bonnin, vice president of the Department of Communications at the university, wrote in an e-mail interview that no disciplinary action was taken after the university's Office of Judicial and Ethical Programs looked into the matter.
Says SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte, "You have the police involved in literally trumping up false charges against a student. That's so far outside of what should be acceptable at a college that it's almost unbelievable."
"It was really scary for a while," Boozer says, "to think that I might be arrested for no reason and have university student misconduct charges on my record."
Boozer was editor of the school newspaper, with a 3.8 GPA and a perfectly clear record, both academic and otherwise, up until that point. Suddenly, with every knock on her door, she feared she was about to be arrested. Having worked with SPLC previously as a participant in the 2010 journalism program called the Campus Coverage Project, she sought out LoMonte for assistance.
After she graduates in December, Boozer hopes to get a job at a newspaper and ultimately become an investigative reporter. She says she's always been interested in watchdog work. She wrote her first investigative series during her sophomore year in 2010 about cabinet members of the Student Government Association at the university receiving free tuition out of the Student Activity Fees budget.
"She was just breaking one scoop after another about questionable spending and unprofessional behavior by the student government. It was just so clear that she was a standout among her peers that we brought her back to be a trainer," LoMonte says. "In this case, she fought in a very intelligent, measured and strategic way, and succeeded."
After the three-part series appeared, the SGA president personally invited Boozer to attend the next meeting, where she was publicly castigated. According to Boozer, the president accused the Helmsman of publishing with a mantra of "If it bleeds, it leads."
"He listed SGA accomplishments that the Helmsman didn't cover," she recalls. "And then, after he berated me, he got a standing ovation from everyone in the room, including the dean of students."
The Helmsman's rocky relationship with the SGA played a big part in the budget cuts at the paper that would come later down the line.
Flash forward to March 2012. The Helmsman staff had been working with its lawyers to obtain records pertaining to a rape that had occurred in November, but they had only just heard about. They had filed open-records requests with campus authorities but were denied access to the documents they sought, even though Boozer had made the case that they were a matter of public record. She contacted LoMonte, who intervened, and the university eventually released the documents.
Then, as the paper's staff was preparing a story about the records dispute, it learned about another rape on campus – now referred to as the March Rape. The tip came at night, and only one Helmsman reporter was working. He was scheduled to cover an SGA event, but Boozer redeployed him to work on the rape story instead. That decision prompted an angry e-mail the next day from the SGA president, Tyler DeWitt, who also sits on the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee.
As the March Rape story unfolded, the Helmsman discovered that the alleged rapist was not a student, but someone who had been posing as one for weeks. He was a registered sex offender hanging out with students, living in a dorm room on campus just a couple hundred feet away from a childcare facility.
The next day, Boozer, managing editor of the Helmsman at the time, published an open letter to the University of Memphis campus police accusing them of a Clery Act violation by exposing the fact that they had knowledge of the rape for 16 hours before notifying students. (The Clery Act is a federal statute that requires all institutions of higher learning that participate in federal financial aid programs to disclose information about crimes on or near their campuses.) "They never sent any warning to us, but they sent one about cellphones getting stolen on campus," recalls Boozer, who also wrote in the editorial that the university would not release information if it cast the school in a bad light.
The day the editorial was published, two university lawyers and a representative of the public relations department approached Richard Ranta, dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts.
"It's not a stretch to say that the university went on a campaign to ruin this journalist's reputation, and had she not been very vigilant and very determined, they might have succeeded," LoMonte says.
According to a document compiled by Helmsman General Manager Candy Justice that she presented at a hearing on the budget cut, the university police department threatened to have Boozer arrested for "trespassing for interviewing students on streets and sidewalks on campus and threatened to lodge student misconduct charges against her and another reporter for allegedly disruptive behavior at the campus police department."
"It seems remarkably coincidental that Ms. Boozer, a high-achieving student leader with no prior disciplinary history, would suddenly embark upon a 'crime wave' beginning on the very same day as the publication of this column," LoMonte wrote in a letter to university President Shirley Raines.
"I think you will readily recognize that this is a highly unorthodox way in which to handle a campus disciplinary case," he wrote, referring to the university administrators' meeting with Ranta.
Raines responded with a letter generally defending the university's handling of the matter and declaring "these allegations are not true." She wrote that the meeting "was intended to get advice from Dean Ranta on the best way to approach the issues raised by the behavior of the reporters (whoever they were) so that the incidents would not be repeated."
University officials would not elaborate, referring a reporter to Raines' letter.
The next month, the Helmsman's funding was slashed by a third by the Student Activity Fee Committee, from $75,000 to $50,000. Meanwhile, the committee – which is made up of four university administrators and three students including the SGA president and vice president – increased SGA's funding by $59,000. The funding recommendation letter from the committee said that the projection of available funds for the upcoming year was half a million less than in previous years, so "almost all funding allocations had to be reduced below the requested amounts." The only other student group that had its funding slashed by one-third was the University Art Museum, which was planning a summer exhibit paying tribute to the Helmsman as the "Voice of the Students."
Says Bonnin, "Funding cuts are always difficult, particularly when they affect student experiential learning. Unfortunately, there was simply not enough money projected for this year for all student groups to retain their previous year's allocations."
After Boozer and Helmsman General Manager Justice met with Dean of Students Steve Petersen, who sat on the Student Fee Committee, it seemed clear to them that the Helmsman funding cut was punitive.
"Interviews with members of the Student Fee Allocation Fund Committee revealed that the content of The Daily Helmsman was discussed during their meeting, leading to an appearance that it may have been a factor in the committee's recommendation to reduce funding from $75,000 to $50,000," Bonnin says.
"I can't begin to tell you the examples that came up in that [funding] conversation about things that the paper did print that seem to have very little relevance or that seemed to touch very, very few students on the campus," said Petersen in the meeting with Boozer and Justice, according to a transcript, citing an example of a story on a four-member Marxist student group.
Boozer told the committee that to avoid litigation, the Helmsman wanted the paper's funding to be restored and an official investigation of why it was cut in the first place.
"The SGA president and vice president brought up several times in that meeting this one event that we didn't cover because our reporter was following the rape story instead," Boozer says.
With the help of LoMonte and SPLC, the Helmsman made a successful case to the SAF based on the First Amendment, and the paper got its money back.
"Discussions centering on criteria for the disbursement of student fees may have made it difficult for committee members to separate the application of those criteria to programs where content is relevant, as opposed to the Helmsman where content is not relevant," Bonnin says. "Since content may have been a factor, we restored the $25,000 in funding to The Daily Helmsman."
According to Boozer, the University of Memphis has worked to keep unflattering stories quiet. In one case, an audit last November by the U.S. Department of Education found another possible violation of the Clery Act when the university failed to warn students in a timely manner of the 2007 murder of football player Taylor Bradford.
"Our university is so image conscious that they don't know how to handle it when news gets out that they did something wrong, so instead of correcting it, they kind of hide or ignore it, which just makes for a bigger story," Boozer says.
Boozer recently won the Emerging Journalist Award from the University of Memphis Alumni Association. And that SPLC award comes with a $500 check, which Boozer has decided to donate to the Free the Helmsman Campaign – an effort to make the paper financially independent. Thus far, Boozer says there's been a very positive response toward this effort, with many alumni and people who have read about the saga in local papers coming forward with money and letters of support.
"We won the short-term battle, but in the long run, we don't want to have an editor on board that won't be gutsy enough to fight for the paper," Boozer says. "That's jeopardizing free press on campus."