My Take: FAMU Campus Paper Shutdown a Big FU to Students & a Downright ‘Noxious Form of Censorship’

With Their Paper Shut Down, Florida A&M Students Start ‘Rogue Website’: ‘Real Journalism Has No Pause Buttons’

Stop-start censorship.

That is what I am calling the sudden, temporary shutdown of The Famuan by administrators at Florida A&M University.  As I previously posted, the FAMU student newspaper has been restricted from publishing this week as planned.  Instead, editorial operations have been curtailed.  The student staffers have been ordered to reapply for their positions and are also now required to “undergo training in media law and ethics . . . [and] more general journalism principles.”  Apparently, if all goes well, they will once again be allowed to produce an issue of the Famuan at month’s end.

In public statements, FAMU School of Journalism & Graphic Communication dean Ann Kimbrough says it is for the best.  The shutdown comes roughly a month after a student filed a lawsuit against the paper alleging defamation.  The suit contends the Famuan mishandled a portion of its reporting surrounding the November 2011 hazing death of FAMU drum major Robert Champion, an incident that has placed the university in a harsh, prolonged national spotlight.  There have also been staff eligibility issues, with some students working on the paper without meeting university enrollment or GPA requirements.

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The initial wave of news stories (and a recent post on this blog) described the Famuan shutdown as a mere postponement, a short suspension, a slight delay.  For her part, Kimbrough has called it a “process” and even “an opportunity.

It’s not.  It’s time to call it what it is: Censorship, capital C.  It’s also a slap in the face and a huge FAMU (without the AM) to the paper’s student staffers.

And it goes against the spirit– and possibly even the letter– of the law.

Student Press Law Center executive director Frank LoMonte, speaking to SPJ region 3 director Michael Koretzky: “Putting a newspaper on hiatus because of one erroneous story is a case of overkill that could not possibly hold up if challenged under the First Amendment.  A prior restraint on publishing is considered the most noxious form of censorship, and nothing short of giving away military invasion plans has been found constitutionally adequate to justify it. . . . It’s the classic case of burning down the village to save it.  It’s entirely understandable that the university wants to respond if, in fact, they’ve concluded that a story contained a factual error.  But removing all of the editors and stopping them from publishing seems needlessly punitive– particularly when the writer who made the mistake no longer works there.”

That’s right, the writer responsible for the lawsuit-level faux pas is no longer at the paper.  In fact, only two members of last fall’s editorial squad are still around.  Current EIC Karl Etters was only a staff writer at the time and had no involvement with the controversial story.  The bottom line is summed up best by the Koretzky post headline: “Punished for a crime they didn’t commit.”

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Then there is the “training” component.  As Sara Gregory reports for the SPLC, “Staff have been told they will have to undergo training in media law and ethics, but Etters said most have already taken the journalism school’s media law class.  In addition, he said they’ve been told some of the training will focus on more general journalism principles.  ‘To me it feels redundant,’ Etters said.  That’s what we do every day.’

So to review: Vile, possibly illegal, poorly planned and even more poorly communicated, redundant, aimed at the wrong people, and a big, public, embarrassing FU.

An Open Letter to Dean Ann Kimbrough

Shutting down a student newspaper, even temporarily, is censorship.  Effectively firing all the staff and making them reapply for their positions (without any sense of what is now expected to get the jobs) is censorship.  Suddenly requiring training– especially in areas the editor says are repetitive– before the staff can proceed with their work is censorship.  And carrying out such dramatic overhauling without first fully planning and communicating how the paper and staff will now function is censorship.

Champion’s hazing death is horrendously tragic.  The school’s subsequent accreditation issues and image troubles are also unfortunate (although apparently at least somewhat deserved).  The Famuan’s admitted mistake in its Champion coverage last fall is troubling.  The related lawsuit is certainly painful to bear.  And the unrelated issue with some students’ eligibility to serve on the paper is a definite cause for concern.

But none of these things– or all of them, combined– come anywhere close to justifying killing or paralyzing the student press, however soon you may allow it to regain feeling or come back from the dead.  Your (overre)action is simply dead wrong, and beneath your university and the position you hold.

How can the students ever believe you will not simply shut them down again the next time you don’t like their coverage or come across a published mistake?

Student press outlets are imperfect.  So are professional press outlets.  So are college administrative offices.  So is the entire premise of higher education.  So is life.  And that’s wonderful.  It’s the imperfections that lead us to discovery– how to subsequently do things better, how to more carefully consider the implications of our actions, how to remedy our wrongs, and how to muster the courage to continue moving forward.

The latter part is key.  Suppression is cowardly.  As an administrator, the courageous act is to allow the students to continue, unabated, imperfect, with offerings of full support and better education along the way.

Related

Florida A&M Student Newspaper Delayed From Publishing & Staff Ordered to Reapply for Positions

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