End FAU’s sti­fling of stu­dent press

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - VOICES & OPINION - Ed­i­to­ri­als are the opin­ion of the Sun Sen­tinel Ed­i­to­rial Board and writ­ten by one of its mem­bers or a de­signee. The Ed­i­to­rial Board con­sists of Ed­i­to­rial Page Editor Rose­mary O’Hara, An­drew Abram­son, Elana Simms, Gary Stein and Editor-in-Chief Howard Salt

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.

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