Debate erupts at UK over distribution of student paper at Commonwealth Stadium

Kernel plans to defy directive against distribution

jhewlett@herald-leader.com,By MeOctober 16, 2010 

University of Kentucky athletics officials have asked student newspaper staffers not to hand out copies of the paper at Commonwealth Stadium on game days, touching off a debate about the First Amendment and the parameters of an $80 million contract.

But Kentucky Kernel staffers will be handing out copies of the paper at the UK-South Carolina game Saturday in the stadium parking lot, despite the fact that the newspaper was asked by UK athletics officials during the UK-Akron game Sept. 18 not to distribute copies there, according to Matt Murray, editor-in-chief of the independent student newspaper.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said that distributing the Kernel or other non-IMG College publications, including election campaign leaflets and Gideon Bibles, on stadium property violates UK policy and the $80 million contract UK has with IMG College, a sports marketing firm that holds exclusive advertising and media rights to all UK sports.

"No one is limiting the right to free speech," said Blanton, who was editor-in-chief of the Kernel during the 1988-89 school year. He said that Kernel staffers are allowed to hand out the free newspapers on public sidewalks around the stadium.

Blanton said that under UK policy, the administrator of each building on campus has the authority to decide what publications may be given display space in a particular building. He said UK officials decided that the distribution of the Kernel and other publications would not be allowed on stadium property.

Jon Fleischaker, a Louisville lawyer who is an expert on the First Amendment, said that prohibiting the distribution of publications at Commonwealth Stadium, which is part of a publicly funded institution, violates the U.S. Constitution.

"Anybody — not just the students — anybody has the right to go onto public property and distribute information," Fleischaker said. And, he said, they don't have to have permission from anyone to do so.

"It's a public facility. It's an open-forum public facility," he said. "I just think a public university ought to know better."

Kernel editor-in-chief Matt Murray said that copies of the newspaper had been distributed at the stadium off and on for at least 10 years.

Murray said he could find nothing in the UK-IMG contract that prohibits distribution of the Kernel in the stadium.

"It seems to me that UK is the one making this decision because they want to protect that $80 million deal with IMG," Murray said.

The Akron game marked the first time UK officials asked Kernel staffers not to hand out copies of the paper at the stadium, he said.

When asked why the athletics department waited until the UK-Akron game to ask staffers not to distribute newspapers, Blanton said that the university does not have a large staff to enforce its policies.

"We have a campuswide no-smoking policy," he said. "We're not able to have tens of people out enforcing that every day."

As usual, the Kernel edition that will be handed out Saturday is a regular edition, not one directed "just toward sports," Murray said.

"We're not trying to stir up anything," he said. "We're just trying to defend the rights that we have as an independent publication."

Blanton said he assumed that the student newspaper staff wants to distribute the Kernel at the stadium for sports and business reasons.

"I think that's their business model, and I understand that perfectly well," Blanton said.

But, he said, "Our contract with IMG is an important contract, and certainly our intent is to honor that contract."

Kim Bucci Shelton, general manager of IMG subsidiary Big Blue Sports Marketing, could not be reached for comment. Blanton said he contacted IMG about providing a comment to the Herald-Leader about the situation and that IMG deferred to UK officials.

The Herald-Leader sold papers at Commonwealth Stadium before the IMG contract went into effect in 2004. "We decided to stop trying to hawk papers in the tailgating areas because the results didn't justify the effort and the expenditure," Herald-Leader publisher Tim Kelly said. "People appeared more interested in having a good time."

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

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