End FAU’s stifling of student press
Imagine if the United States Congress was responsible for selecting the editor-inchief of the Washington Post. The conflict of interest would be staggering — the politicians would surely select someone friendly to their own selfish needs.
That’s the comparison used by an attorney for Joe Pye, a Florida Atlantic University student who was unanimously selected in April by his peers at the University Press to become the next editor at the student newspaper. He was then unanimously chosen for the position by FAU’s Student Media Advisory Board, which includes professional journalists.
Yet he’s not the editor-in-chief. FAU has a bizarre and anti-Democratic policy that requires a third step — the Student Senate must ratify the selection of the editor-inchief.
The university never should have put this policy in place more a decade ago. If FAU doesn’t change the way the newspaper editor is chosen, this will wind up in the courts — and the university could be found guilty of violating the First Amendment in order to quash aggressive reporting by its own students.
“I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years and I’ve never encountered a college with a student government association that has veto power over who gets to be the editor,” Frank Lomonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board. “It’s obvious why that is structurally incompatible with decent journalism. They’re going to hold the editorship over your head if it looks like you’re going to cover them too aggressively.”
That’s what happened to Pye, when he made clear in the interview process with the Student Senate that he wouldn’t go easy on them.
When asked about his plans as editor, Pye responded, “What do I plan to do? Keep watch over all you guys.”
It was an honest response and that’s the job of the student newspaper editor.
Pye’s interview process lasted five minutes. And despite those with journalistic integrity supporting his candidacy, the senators voted 5-3 to deny him the editorship at the state’s sixth-largest university.
University Press is funded by FAU’s Activity and Service fee, which is managed by student government. That’s why the top university papers, like the Independent Florida Alligator in Gainesville, have no financial ties with the school.
But there are only a few dozen independent student newspapers in the country. The vast majority are funded by the universities, and it appears only FAU requires their student senate to approve the editor.
And stifling the press is an ongoing problem at the university.
“FAU has just had a really checkered history of disregard for freedom of the press,” Lomonte said. “If you ask me what college has caused us the most trouble over the last 10 years, FAU certainly has been near the top.”
In 2013, the university stopped honoring public record requests for student editor Dylan Bouscher because of his aggressive reporting.
“It was totally against the law,” Lomonte said.
Bouscher was also threatened with suspension from FAU because university police didn’t like where he was standing at a crime scene. The university’s discipline board actually followed up on the case, and the editor was forced to plea down to a lesser charge to avoid suspension. All in the name of practicing journalism.
In 2010, FAU fired longtime newspaper adviser Michael Koretzky. University officials said his dismissal was part of a reorganization of student media, but the paper’s staff said the university disapproved of the editorial content. The students later rehired Koretzky as “permanent guest speaker.”
Pye also found a workaround. He’s serving as de facto editor even though he doesn’t have the job in title or pay.
Pye told us he will drop his legal fight if the university does the right thing. He wants an official, written change in policy that takes the editorship decision out of the hands of Student Senate.
FAU spokeswoman Lisa Metcalf told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board that FAU’s Student Media Advisory Board will meet today to fill the vacant editor position. Pye remains in the running. Metcalf said in light of Pye’s situation, FAU officials have “encouraged student government to review the process and consider alternatives” to its process of hiring an editor-in-chief.
While the student government should be criticized for its petty denial of Pye’s editorship, many of them are still teenagers. The real adults in the room — the university officials who have the power to implement a free press at FAU — deserve most of the blame. And if student government doesn’t change its policy, administration must intervene.
David Kian, FAU’s general counsel, said he just began reviewing the case last week. He said generally the university prefers the students to work out their own issues, but “if student government is acting in a way that violates the constitution or has provisions in their rules that violates the constitution, we have to take that seriously. We’re looking into it.”
They shouldn’t have to look hard. The rules need to be changed immediately, and not because of a legal challenge.
Pye’s attorney, Justin Hemlepp, is also fighting for back pay. Student journalists aren’t exactly paid the big bucks, but Pye deserves to be paid the difference for the months he’s been working as de facto editor-in-chief but paid as the news editor, his former position.
“It’s not just about me,” Pye said. “It’s a bigger picture thing. I’m not going to be satisfied or happy until no editor has to go through this process again.”
FAU officials should be embarrassed about how they’re treating their student press. It’s the worst message a university could send to its students.