Florida student paper struggles for autonomy from student government

FLORIDA — When it comes to funding student publications, a state law that allows student government control over the funding of student organizations propagates a power struggle between student journalists and student government officials, and the Florida Atlantic University student newspaper 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 University Press reported on the pay raise, and the next day the student government attempted to impose a $6,000 fine and one-year suspension on University Press adviser Michael Koretzky, saying he had violated the editor in chief selection process. After a campus outcry and publicity in the local media, Koretzky was not fined or suspended, but was reprimanded by the student government.

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, then co-editor Lily Ladira and Dean of Student Affairs Leslie Bates averted the lockout. The student government issued temporary employment contracts to last about 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 the student government leaders at the university.

At that meeting, the student government cut $5,000 from the $123,000 the University Press requested for the 2005-2006 school year. Koretzky said that due to the cut, the paper would 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 the University Press appealed the student government’s February decision to cut the money from the paper’s budget, but was unsuccessful.

Bates said despite the disputes, the newspaper has the support of FAU officials and the school has not censored its content.

“This paper can basically report whatever they want, as long as it’s not slander or libelous, and that’s their right 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 major papers—The Miami Herald, The Palm Beach Post, and South Florida Sun-Sentinel, in addition to two alternative weekly newspapers and a few smaller town newspapers. The University Press has 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, many public universities in Florida gave “campus papers’ purse strings to student governments, instead of administrators, in the name of student autonomy,” according to an article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Although Koretzky said student government officials do not know about the precedent set by this 1975 case, it may provide clues that explain the University Press‘ 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 Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Schiff v. Williams that even if the president’s allegations of the newspaper’s content were accurate, the stories that Williams objected to were not the “special circumstances” that could justify censorship.

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

According to the Sun-Sentinel, other Florida public university student newspapers where funding 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 government president 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 to say why the University Press has had a tense relationship with student government officials recently, Koretzky said, people are now waiting “to graduate the problem.”

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