Florida student paper struggles for autonomy from student government

FLORIDA — When it comes to funding student publications, astate law that allows student government control over the funding of studentorganizations propagates a power struggle between student journalists andstudent government officials, and the Florida Atlantic University studentnewspaper is caught in the center of it.

Recent disputes at the universitybegan in October, when students writing for the University Press beganinvestigating student government officials’ self-granted 25-percent retroactivepay raise under the leadership of President Alvira Khan. The UniversityPress reported on the pay raise, and the next day the student governmentattempted to impose a $6,000 fine and one-year suspension on UniversityPress adviser Michael Koretzky, saying he had violated the editor in chiefselection process. After a campus outcry and publicity in the local media,Koretzky was not fined or suspended, but was reprimanded by the studentgovernment.

On Dec. 13, Khan threatened to lock University Pressstaffers out of their office because the paper’s employment contracts were notsigned by an editor in chief, she said. A meeting between Khan, Koretzky, thenco-editor Lily Ladira and Dean of Student Affairs Leslie Bates averted thelockout. The student government issued temporary employment contracts to lastabout two months, which were extended once an editor in chief was selected at aFeb. 19 meeting of the University-Wide Council, a monthly meeting of all of thestudent government leaders at the university.

At that meeting, the studentgovernment cut $5,000 from the $123,000 the University Press requestedfor the 2005-2006 school year. Koretzky said that due to the cut, the paperwould no longer be able to afford to repair and replace their computers.

Khan said she could not say why the budget was cut because she is the chairof the University-Wide Council, and does not participate in the voting process.If the newspaper needs money, she said, they could propose a bill for theadditional funding, which would be voted on again.

In March theUniversity Press appealed the student government’s February decision tocut the money from the paper’s budget, but was unsuccessful.

Bates saiddespite the disputes, the newspaper has the support of FAU officials and theschool has not censored its content.

“This paper can basically reportwhatever they want, as long as it’s not slander or libelous, and that’s theirright as a free press, so we stand by that 100 percent,” he said.

AssociateDean of Student Affairs Lisa Bardill said the school supports both theUniversity Press and the student government. She said the newspaper’sfunding has been an issue she has thought about before.

“It has been mybelief for some time that we should look into how the student newspaper isfunded,” she said. Some options the school has considered include consultingwith the College Media Advisers to evaluate alternative sources for funding,gaining funding from the College of Journalism or determining if the paper couldgenerate enough revenue to become independent, Bardill said.

But Koretzkysaid the University Press will probably never become financiallyindependent because since FAU is in an urban area, it has a lot of competitionfor advertising revenue. The competition includes three majorpapers—The Miami Herald, The Palm Beach Post,and South Florida Sun-Sentinel, in addition to two alternativeweekly newspapers and a few smaller town newspapers. The University Presshas made two attempts to become independent, once in the 1980s and once in the1990s, but “both failed quickly,” he said, because of the competition.

Unless FAU allocates money to the newspaper that is not funneled through thestudent government, the student government is legally responsible for allocatingits funding. Under a statute in the 2004 Florida Education Code, the studentactivity and service fees are intended “for lawful purposes to benefit thestudent body,” specifically naming student publications as one of thosepurposes. The statute specifies that the “allocation and expenditure of the fundshall be determined by the student government association of the university.”

While the student government’s control over the funding and the presumptionamong some that they thus control content of the newspaper has been a problem atFlorida Atlantic University, it has not always been this way.

Until themid-1970s, school officials at public colleges in Florida had more control overthe funding and content of student newspapers. Following a legal battle betweenFlorida Atlantic University’s former president and the student newspaper, manypublic universities in Florida gave “campus papers’ purse strings to studentgovernments, instead of administrators, in the name of student autonomy,”according to an article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. AlthoughKoretzky said student government officials do not know about the precedent setby this 1975 case, it may provide clues that explain the UniversityPress‘ current situation.

In 1975, a federal appeals court found thatFlorida Atlantic University’s former president, Kenneth Williams, was infringingon students’ First Amendment rights when he fired three student editors forpublishing “incorrect and misleading” content that he did not approve of in theformer student newspaper, the Atlantic Sun. The federal Fifth CircuitCourt of Appeals ruled in Schiff v. Williams that even if the president’sallegations of the newspaper’s content were accurate, the stories that Williamsobjected to were not the “special circumstances” that could justifycensorship.

Student governments are thought to be subject to the same FirstAmendment constraints as school administrators as recognized in the1984 Coloradocase, State Board for Community Colleges v. Olson.

According to theSun-Sentinel, other Florida public university student newspapers wherefunding is allocated by student governments are at Florida InternationalUniversity and New College.

At Florida International University, the studentgovernment cut the student newspaper’s budget for the 2005-2006 school year, butthe Beacon‘s Managing Editor John Level said most of the money wasreinstated once the newspaper contacted school administrators. Aside from theattempted budget cut, Lovell said the Beacon has not had any problemswith the student government controlling their funding, but he said it would benice to see the newspaper become financially independent.

“I look in[independent student] newspapers like University of Florida’s Alligator,and they have a lot more freedom and they don’t have to answer to the schooladministration or student government,” he said. The Beacon, however, doesnot plan to seek independence because the newspaper’s staff is “pretty pleasedwith the way things are,” Lovell said.

At the University of Central Florida,the student newspaper is financially independent, which is preferable to thesituation at FAU, said Ashley Burns, managing editor of CentralFlorida Future. If the student government allocated its funding, he said,they would want that newspaper to give them positive coverage, which could put a”strain” on the newspaper’s freedom.

“If you have any kind of corruption inthe student government, then that paper really can’t report on it because it’sputting itself at risk of losing its funding,” Burns said.

The studentgovernment has exerted more than just financial control over the newspaper inyears past. In 1998, a former Florida Atlantic University student governmentpresident fired the editor in chief and suspended six other staffers at theUniversity Press after the paper published a “sexually explicit column.”The student government president also accused the newspaper staff of sabotagingcomputers, according to the Sun-Sentinel.

Although it is hard tosay why the University Press has had a tense relationship with studentgovernment officials recently, Koretzky said, people are now waiting “tograduate the problem.”

“I think a lot of people are just waiting to see ifthis is just an issue with the student body president more than an institutionalthing,” he said.