TALLAHASSEE — Florida A&M trustees decided Friday to reverse course — again — on the charge of its appointed anti-hazing committee.
Their decision means the committee must operate within Florida's Sunshine Law for public meetings, a requirement the outside panel successfully argued last week would be too burdensome for turning around the research FAMU wants in time for the fall semester.
More than half of the experts on the committee will quit as a result of the reversal, warned former U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Robinson, chairman of the anti-hazing panel, before the vote.
Go ahead, trustee Rufus Montgomery retorted.
"I took it as a threat when I hear resignations if they're not allowed to do what they asked," Montgomery said. "To me that's kind of a child not getting their way and saying I'm going to take my toys and go home. I'd rather move on because I believe it sets a dangerous precedent . . . So, you know, go ahead and resign. But I don't think as a board we should be held hostage under the threat of resignation of anyone."
Montgomery was one of just two trustees to vote against allowing the panel to operate as a "fact-finding" body, per the committee's request, on March 23. It passed 7-2.
The action provoked widespread criticism, with Gov. Rick Scott, the First Amendment Foundation, and Dean Colson, chairman of the university system's governing body, all urging FAMU trustees to go back on their decision.
"The safer course, and more in keeping with the view that Florida government proceedings should be done in the Sunshine, would be to have all committee meetings noticed and open to the public," Scott wrote.
Friday's vote, which reinstated the panel's original mission as an advisory body, was 8-2, with trustees Karl White and Belinda Reed Shannon dissenting. Shannon, the liaison between the panel and trustees, said characterizations of the outside experts as trying to act in secret were unfair and misinformed.
"Fact-finding is not investigative in nature," she said, a direct shot at Scott for saying the experts were not qualified for that kind of research since they are not in law enforcement. "They are mindful of the law and would be careful not to cross over from fact-finding to public policy recommendations."
Trustees formed the panel of outside experts in education, criminal justice, music and psychology to make recommendations about ending hazing practices after the November death of FAMU drum major Robert Champion. His death was ruled a homicide as a result of a hazing initiation. Charges have not yet been filed.
Robinson, appointed chairman of the anti-hazing panel, said the committee wanted broad flexibility to exchange emails and call each other whenever convenient. Five of the committee's seven members have told Robinson they will resign if trustees revised their mission so their meetings become public, he said.
"Time is this committee's enemy," Robinson said.
"I know it's inconvenient and all that," said trustee Spurgeon McWilliams, a former member of the Florida Commission on Ethics, "but that's how we have to operate in the state of Florida."