UNC's Associate Athletic Director for Athletic Communications Steve Kirschner likewise refused Cornwell credentials, claiming that UNC would not credential "opposing" web sites other, again, than "official" sites.
Cornwell is asking the court to declare the policies at N.C. State and UNC unconstitutional, and requests an injunction ordering both schools to comply with constitutional law in their credentialing process.
Cornwell is represented by the North Carolina chapter of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm. A news release from the Institute for Justice dealing with Cornwell's lawsuit is posted here on the site.
Statefans will update this story as it develops.
Raleigh, N.C.—Do online media organizations enjoy the same constitutional protections as television, radio and print media?
In a lawsuit filed today in Wake County Superior Court against two universities of the University of North Carolina system and an athletic official from each school, the Institute for Justice North Carolina Chapter (IJ-NC) will ask the courts to answer "yes" to that question. The IJ-NC will argue that North Carolina State University (N.C. State) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) are acting unconstitutionally when they refuse media credentials to certain online media—other than "official" school sites—while welcoming their colleagues in television, radio, and print to university athletic events.
N.C. State, through Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations Annabelle Vaughan, refuses credentials to online media other than "official" school sites and sites affiliated with national organizations. Associate Athletic Director for Athletic Communications Steve Kirschner at UNC denies media credentials to "opposing" websites, or those reporting on rival universities—other than those, again, with "official" status. The IJ-NC will argue in court that the schools' restrictions on media access violate both economic liberty and freedom of the press rights contained in the Constitution of North Carolina, as well as the First Amendment to the federal Constitution.
"Article 1, Section 1 of our state constitution guarantees our citizens a fundamental right to the fruits of their own labor," said Michael Byrne, executive director of the IJ-NC. "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's exclusion of online media, Byrne continued, is based more on "just because" than on solid legal grounds. "A credentialing decision based on the status of the medium or, in the case of UNC, based on the medium's point of view, makes no sense factually or legally."
The IJ-NC, the second state chapter of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, represents small businessman Jerry Cornwell in the lawsuit. For nearly three years, Cornwell has operated "The Strutting Wolf.Com" which recently merged with Statefans.com, and is now the largest N.C. State-focused site on the Internet. The site is located at www.northcarolinastate.theinsiders.com.
"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," said Cornwell. "What would the Founders have thought of UNC's restriction on ‘opposing' media, which 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?"
Cornwell said that Vaughan refused media credentials to him while granting them to Inside Carolina, a print and media publication that focuses on arch-rival UNC-Chapel Hill. Cornwell continued, "It's funny, here's a print and online publication that serves our biggest rival, while our site, which does nothing but promote N.C. sports, that is turned down just because we are online and not ‘official.' That makes no sense."
Citing Article 1, Section 1's economic liberty protection, North Carolina courts have repeatedly struck down state attempts to license or otherwise interfere with citizens pursuing "ordinary and harmless occupations." These have included attempts to license photographers, tile layers, and dry cleaning establishments. In each case, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the State lacked sufficient interest in such routine occupations to justify a licensing scheme or other restrictions.
With this lawsuit, the IJ-NC seeks to extend this protection to online media entities—the fastest-growing media sources in the country. Traditional media outlets, such as television and newspapers, increasingly have online editions to give their readers up-to-the-minute access to news and information. N.C. State and UNC, through GoPack.com and TarHeelBlue.com websites, use the Internet to promote university athletics. Why then are entrepreneurs like Cornwell denied the same opportunity?
Cornwell's website has been in existence for nearly three years. Byrne argues that even if Cornwell's site was the relative newcomer, "Section 14 of our state constitution refers to freedom of the press as a ‘bulwark of our liberty' that can ‘never be restrained.' Vaughn and Kirchener apparently seek to restrain the press because they think they just can. We think the courts will disagree, on both free press and economic liberty grounds."
IJ-NC Staff Attorney Heather Royster said that the case could have an impact far greater than the question of sports reporting at N.C. State and UNC. "Access for online media is a vital issue in today's media law environment. This case could serve as important precedent for online media nationwide, in areas from sports reporting to general news coverage."
The Institute for Justice is a non-partisan, nonprofit public interest law firm. Through strategic litigation, training, communication and outreach, the Institute for Justice advances a rule of law under which individuals can control their own destinies as free and responsible members of society. Its North Carolina chapter litigates under the state constitution to reinvigorate economic liberty and property rights in North Carolina, and additionally works through the courts to advance school choice and freedom of speech in the state. The national organization trains law students, lawyers and others in the tactics of public interest litigation with the goal of limiting government power and advancing individual freedom. The Institute was formed in 1991 by William Mellor and Clint Bolick.