Student government at Florida university cuts $63,000 from student media budgets

FLORIDA –After a 14-hour budget meeting Saturday, student newspaper editor Jake Smith wasexhausted, convinced the student senate would zero fund the newspaper and firethe entire staff.

Instead, the student government of Florida AtlanticUniversity cut the paper’s budget by $15,000 and cut $48,000 from thebudget of the university’s student-run television station — and thisis not the first time student government has intervened in the newspaper’sproduction.

At the budget meeting, the student government also passeda rule that mandated the newspaper, the University Press, to include coverage from all of the university’sseven campuses in each issue, published weekly. The newspaper’s editor andadviser both said this kind of coverage is “impossible” because ofpage constraints and the distance between the campuses, which are spread overfour counties in southern Florida.

The budget of the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University, the University Press, was slashed by $15,000.

Michael Koretzky, thenewspaper’s adviser, said the budget cut and the senate’s contentdictations constitute censorship and violate the staff’s First Amendmentrights.

“They don’t understand that they can’t cutour budget based on the quality of the paper,” he said. “Theydidn’t cite any incidents, and just said ‘we do not like the qualityof the paper.’”

Koretzky said he viewed the budgetdecisions as “another veiled way to shut us down.”

PeteMontalbano, co-adviser for Owl TV, the university’s television station,said the budget slash was unexpected. Nearly a quarter of the station’sbudget was cut. The advisers’ salaries were also cut and their hoursincreased.

The cut was also a surprise, he said, because while thenewspaper may have been targeted for budget cuts because of critical articlesabout student government, the goal of Owl TV has been “to create apositive message about the university.”

Another goal for thecampus television station staff was to see their work aired on local televisionstations.

“In that process we were getting very close,”Montalbano said. “But now with this, it put a wrench in the wholesituation. It will be hard to move forward when we don’t have enoughpeople.”

In the wake of the cuts, Montalbano said he isconsidering leaving the station, but he wants to continue to help his broadcaststudents.

“A big part of me wants to stay and turn the camerason [student government] and put the cameras in their faces every week,” hesaid.

One Owl TV broadcasting student is trying to do just that.Rodolfo Rivera, a senior at Florida Atlantic University, was a member of studentgovernment up until two weeks ago, when he decided to join Owl TV as a reporter.Rivera said the senate speaker for the Boca campus quickly told him he could notbe a senator while participating in an “agency” funded by thesenate.

Rivera said he “felt bad” about not being ableto be a senator, but that he is using his new role as a journalist to coverstudent government activities.

“I saw their tactics firsthand,” he said. He is now gathering footage for a television segment onthe budget meetings.

Students on both sides of the agency/governmentdivide said they are uncomfortable with the student government deciding thebudget of the student media.

“The student press should not bepaid for by student government,” said Heather Boyer, senate speaker forthe university’s Jupiter campus. “It’s a conflict ofinterest.”

But in the current set-up, senators make budgetdecisions as representatives of a student body that pays activities fees to fundthe production of the newspaper and television station, Boyer said. The problem,she said, is that students are paying for a paper that is of poorquality.

“The University Press is not well done,” Boyer said. “It gets progressivelyworse. If you sold it, nobody would buy it.”

Boyer said thepoor quality of the paper was part of the reason she voted for the budget cuts.It is “not a good funding practice” to reward an organization thatis not improving, she said.

Last weekend’s budget cuts are themost recent incidents in more than two years of tension between studentgovernment and student press at the university.

In December 2004,Koretzky narrowly avoided a $6,000 fine and a suspension ordered by the studentgovernment, which claimed he violated ethics guidelines. Two weeks later, thestudent body president ordered the newspaper staff to turn over the keys to thenewsroom after employment contracts for the paper’s staffers had not been signedby an editor in chief, who had not yet beenselected.

“It’s definitely going to be a bumpyride,” said Jake Smith, the newspaper’s current editor in chief.“It has been in the past, it will be in the future. Even when thegovernment changes hands, they believe they can just dictatecontent.”

To address the continuing problems between thestudent government and the newspaper, Koretzky is moving forward with earlierplans to find a new source of funding for student media, apart from studentfees. At Saturday’s meeting, student government officials encouraged staffto hire a media consultant to assess the situation, which both Koretzky anduniversity administrators see as a “positive”step.

“We were excited that the leadership wanted to dothat,” said Lisa Bardill, associate dean of student affairs.

For Koretzky, the opportunity for independence and independent funding for thepaper is “a light at the end of thetunnel.”

by Allison Retka, SPLC staff writer

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