Florida A&M Update, Part 1: SPJ, CMA, SPLC & CMM Express Concerns About Treatment of Student Press

Representatives of three respected, national journalism organizations have recently expressed public concerns about the apparent stifling of the student press at Florida A&M University.  I have also expressed such concerns.  Our worries center on the temporary shutdown of The Famuan campus newspaper in response to a pending lawsuit, along with the sudden, inexplicable overhaul of its staff and the unexplained removal of its adviser.

In letters and comments, the administrators’ actions are called “a case of overkill that could not possibly hold up if challenged under the First Amendment”; “interpreted as affronts to [students’] First Amendment rights”; and “punitive and [abridging] students’ constitutional rights.”

Earlier today, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) posted a copy of a letter sent last week to Ann Kimbrough, dean of FAMU’s School of Journalism & Graphic Communication.

In the missive, SPJ president Sonny Albarado and president-elect David Cuillier write they were “concerned when we found out the student editor was required, without explanation and in a closed process, to re-interview for the job for which he was well qualified and then was not selected.  Regardless of intent, this action creates a chilling effect on all students because it can be viewed as retaliation for the student’s criticisms of the university. It’s particularly troubling that, according to the student, he was told he was not selected because he was too negative.  As a former journalist, you no doubt understand the importance of a free and unfettered press. . . . Actions viewed as punitive toward student journalists can be interpreted as affronts to their First Amendment rights, which we believe is the case here.”

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The pair offered two immediate, reasonable solutions: expanding and diversifying the Famuan’s media board and adopting the “Model Guidelines for College Student Media” laid out by the Student Press Law Center.

SPLC executive director Frank LoMonte has also spoken out against FAMU officials’ response, particularly the Famuan’s suspension.  As he told the SPJ region 3 blog last month, “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.”

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Soon after LoMonte’s comments, College Media Association president David Swartzlander expressed concerns in a letter later shared with CMA membership.  As he wrote on behalf of the organization, “We believe it is precisely when times are most challenging that a campus needs a free press. . . . Our concern here is the suspension of publishing the newspaper appears punitive and abridges students’ constitutional rights.  We’re also obliged to inquire more deeply into the removal of CMA member [Andrew] Skerritt as adviser.  We are concerned that in addition to the direct impact upon student journalists and Famuan readers, this action may put at risk the School of Journalism’s accreditation and the university’s overall reputation as an institution supporting free inquiry.”

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Separately, in an open letter to Kimbrough published on this blog, I explained to her, “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. . . . Your (overre)action is simply dead wrong, and beneath your university and the position you hold.”

Related

‘No Paper, No Problem’: An Interview with Former (& Future) Famuan Editor Karl Etters

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

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

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

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