The latest court case brought about by the North Carolina Chapter of the Institute for Justice involves two cherished traditions in the state, freedom and sports. It also concerns a rapidly evolving form of journalism, online news media.
The plaintiff is Jerry Cornwell, founder of the StruttingWolf.com (TSW) website, an online medium focusing on North Carolina State University and Atlantic Coast Conference athletic news and events. After merging with a similar site, Statefans.com, the three-year old TSW is now the largest NCSU site on the Internet. “Thousands of people check our site to follow Wolfpack sports,” Cornwell says.
Despite TSW’s audience, the site faces a very significant roadblock to providing coverage of N.C. State athletics: the university itself.
TSW’s suit names N.C. State, its athletics archrival, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as defendants in the case. Others are the Board of Directors of UNC-CH, Annabelle Vaughan, assistant athletic director for media relations for N.C. State, and Steve Kirschner, associate athletic director for athletic communications for UNC-CH.
According to case, Vaughan and Kirschner have refused to grant media credentials to Cornwell because TSW is only an “online” media entity. Other online media, such as GoPack.com and CarolinaBlues.com, enjoy such credentials only because they are “official” school websites.
While TSW is denied access, Corwell said, Inside Carolina, a print and media publication that focuses on UNC-CH is credentialed by N.C. State. “Here’s a print and online publication that serves our biggest rival, while our site, which does nothing but promote N.C. sports, is turned down just because we are online and not ‘official,'” Cornwell said. “That makes no sense.”
The denial of such credentials means more than “losing the best seats in the house,” according to IJ-NC’s May 7th press release. It includes the lack of accessibility to coaches and players and being deprived of up-to-the minute statistical analysis. IJ explains that this all means “obtaining information second hand or after the fact,” thereby, “excluding the most loyal and enthusiastic media.”
Michael Byrne, executive director of the IJ-NC, which is a non-partisan, nonprofit public interest law firm, explained that the N.C. Constitution in Article 1, Section 1, “guarantees our citizens a fundamental right to ‘the fruits of their own labor.’ Simply put, the state cannot interfere with one’s right to earn a living in an ordinary and harmless occupation without a substantial and solid reason.”
N.C. State and UNC-CH’s exclusion of TSW, however, appears neither substantial nor solid. Byrne said it is “based on the status of the medium or, in the case of UNC, based on the medium’s point of view.”
According to IJ-NC, this section of the state constitution “is a strong and enforceable protection for North Carolinians’ economic liberty and means that public entities — like the UNC system — can’t restrict that liberty.” IJ-NC argues that the actions of N.C. State in denying credentials to TSW place the site “at a serious competitive disadvantage compared to [its] credentialed counterparts.”
In addition, IJ-NC’s suit claims that the restrictions on TSW are a violation of another state constitutional provision. Section 14 of Article 1 in the state’s Declaration of Rights protects freedom of speech and the press. It calls these freedoms “two of the great bulwarks of liberty and therefore shall never be restrained.”
IJ-NC further explains that the violation is not just at the state level; the rights of the press are protected under the U.S. Constitution as well. As stated in the IJ-NC press release, “The drafters of each constitution knew the importance of an unfettered press to open government … and surely the courts will recognize that in the Internet age online media are as important a part of that ‘bulwark of liberty’ as any other form.”
Furthermore, according to IJ-NC, there is a legal precedent for TSW’s case. In the 1986 trial of Anderson v. Cryovac, Inc., the First Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the restriction of access to information to certain types of media. Specifically, in the court’s legal opinion: “The danger in granting favorable treatment to certain types of media is obvious: it allows the government to influence the types of substantive media coverage that public events will receive. Such a practice is unquestionably at odds with the First Amendment. Neither the courts nor any other branch of the government can be allowed to affect the content or tenor of the news by choreographing which news organizations have access to relevant information.”
For Cornwell, the case is also about common sense. “It’s amazing that, in 2003, our two flagship public universities would refuse to credential one form of media over another, with the one they leave in the cold being the fastest and best way to give information about sporting events,” he said.
Of “UNC’s restriction on ‘opposing’ media,” Cornwell said it “is more reminiscent of King George III and North Carolina’s Speaker Ban law than of the ideals of a state university founded in 1789, the year our Federal Constitution was adopted.”