At FAMU, a jarring turn on journalism

Published Feb. 11, 2013

When a news organization is housed on a college campus, the college's administrators walk a legal and ethical tightrope. They must balance authority against autonomy, providing students with guidance but never crossing the line from "coaching" to "controlling."

Regrettably, Tallahassee's Florida A&M University has fallen off that high wire. Its journalism school has engineered what amounts to a hostile takeover of the news operations at the Famuan, a paper that in recent years has provided the FAMU community with hard-hitting coverage of multiple campus scandals.

In January, the dean of FAMU's school of journalism and communications suddenly and without explanation placed the newspaper on a three-week "hiatus" and removed all of its editors, forcing them to reapply for their positions.

The editors gamely responded by creating their own online startup to meet the campus' need for news, much to the college's displeasure. Upon reapplying to the Famuan, none of the incumbents was rehired.

Initial news reports linked the university's decision to a libel suit filed by a former FAMU band member, who claims the newspaper misidentified him as one of the perpetrators in the brutal November 2011 hazing death of drum major Robert Champion. But that explanation never made sense. None of the editors selected to take over the Famuan was involved with that December 2011 story. The government cannot restrain a speaker from speaking based on the speculative fear of the future libel he might commit.

From the standpoint of the law, only one fact matters: A newspaper was prevented from publishing by order of the government. That fact alone should send a shiver up the spine of anyone who cares about government accountability.

At a public university, the First Amendment strongly protects the right of students against government interference in what they say and write. College campuses, the Supreme Court has affirmed repeatedly, are "uniquely the marketplace of ideas," so that speech may not be prevented or punished even if it offends delicate listeners or is sharply critical of the institution.

The only reason editor Karl Etters was given for his removal came from the Famuan's new adviser, who disapproved of his willingness to pursue "negative" stories reflecting unflatteringly on the university.

The message sent to Famuan journalists is unmistakable — you serve at the whim of the college, and we will feel free to remove you at any time without so much as the courtesy of an explanation. It would take the nerves of an Army paratrooper to function independently as a watchdog under such intimidation.

Underlying FAMU's misguided attitude toward journalism is a mentality sadly commonplace among image-conscious colleges: It is the students' duty to make their school look good.

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That is exactly backward. A student has no more duty to promote a positive image of his college than a citizen of Tampa has to promote a favorable image of the city. If anything, it is the college's job to make its students look good. Working on a "party-line" newspaper where the government can stop the presses and fire the staff without justification is not the first-rate journalism education to which FAMU students are entitled.

It is not an act of disloyalty to ask difficult questions, expose wrongdoing and demand reforms — it is, to the contrary, the highest duty of an informed citizen. And that is what should be happening at FAMU right now.

Punishing journalists for pursuing the truth is, sadly, not an isolated occurrence at FAMU. In recent years, journalism advisers from Wyoming's Northwest College to Maryland's Morgan State University to the University of Texas-Tyler have been fired to punish their students for uncomfortably inquisitive journalism.

In protecting journalists against institutional meddling, all colleges should observe the well-established model of the internal auditor. Every good-sized government agency has an auditor whose job is to ferret out waste and fraud. The auditor is on the agency's payroll but not under the agency's thumb. The independence to publicly call out the agency for its shortcomings is what makes the auditor's reports valuable.

The Famuan needs that same status and that same level of insulation — a governance structure that assures future student editors that one step over an invisible line of a capricious administrator's choosing will not result in firing.

Frank D. LoMonte is executive director of the Student Press Law Center,, a nonprofit advocate for the rights of the student media based in Arlington, Va. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.