U. of Florida plans to remove newspaper racks, charge for space in new ones

FLORIDA — TheUniversity of Florida’s independent student newspaper is protesting a change indistribution policy that it believes could have a detrimental effect onreadership and First Amendment freedom.

Earlierthis month, UF informed The Independent Florida Alligator that it will be be replacing 19 of the newspaper’s bold orange racks with largeblack modular racks owned by the university. In order to use the new modularracks, the Alligator will have to sign a licensingagreement and pay a fee to use the space.

Whilethe newspaper will retain the majority of its approximately 70 privately-ownedracks, it is concerned because the 19 racks targeted for change represent someof the most heavily-trafficked distribution sites on campus.

Alligator editor Clare Lennon said UF isconverting the distribution sites in a series of stages, which is why thenewspaper does not have to give up all of its racks at once.

The Alligatoris “leaving all options open,” said Thomas Julin, the newspaper’s attorney, andhas not ruled out the possibility of filing a lawsuit against UF.

Thedebate over the racks began in December 2009, when the UF Board of Trusteespassed a new rule prohibiting distribution of publications on campus unlessapproved by the school’s vice president for business affairs.

Aroundthe same time, the university began discussing a plan to purchase modular newsracks that would hold multiple publications, both student and professional.Those racks were purchased in fall 2010.

Lastyear, the Alligator agreed to a test run with someof the new modular racks, arguing that a full-scale switch at the same timecould harm readership. The test was conducted this past spring, when the newspaperremoved five of its own racks in place of the university-owned modular racks.In the process, it collected data on distribution totals at the five sites andpassed along those numbers to a university economics professor for review.

However,UF informed the newspaper July 3 — before the results of the test run werecompleted — that it would be replacing the 19 racks by Aug. 15.

Universityspokesman Steve Orlando said the decision was made due to safety and aestheticconcerns.

“Everytime we have a tropical storm or hurricane, we have to get the racks offcampus,” he said. “The worry was that this was a safety issue … where thoseracks could become dangerous projectiles in a storm. The modular racks solvethat problem.”

Inaddition, Orlando said the current racks “didn’t blend in with the historiclook of the campus,” and that the change would help solve the disparity.

Whereasthe orange distribution sites are privately owned and paid for by thenewspaper, the staff will be required to pay the university $100 per year torent out a full space in each new rack. In order to help offset this cost,Orlando said UF has offered to give the Alligator a $300 credit for each of theracks it trades in.

Thenewspaper, however, is not convinced.

“Whenyou don’t own the means to your distribution, there’s always a concern that theowner could shut the newspaper down,” Julin said.

Julin,a former Alligator staff member, explained thatthe newspaper became financially independent from the university in the 1970safter realizing that it would be a beneficial arrangement for both parties.

“Now,you have the university coming back into the picture and saying ‘we don’t wantwholesale ownership of the newspaper, but we want to control itsdistribution,’” he said. “To me, that’s a dangerous backsliding.”

Thestaff wrote an editorial Thursday reiterating its First Amendment concerns.

“Theuncertainty of this new arrangement will create a chilling effect, hamperingour ability to provide students with the most accurate and unbiased coverage,”the editorial read. “Students might also receive less important news andinformation in the future.”

Orlandodismissed the students’ concerns, saying the university has no interest incensoring the newspaper’s content.

“Anysuggestion that the administration would use its authority to prevent anegative story from circulating is out of the question,” he said. “No place isin favor of free speech like a college campus.”

Lennonexpressed disappointment over the timing of UF’s decision. She said it madelittle sense to finalize a plan before the results of the test run with themodular racks were completed.

Lennonis helping to circulate a Change.org petition that asks UF students and community members to voice their support for theretention of the current orange racks. As of press time, the petition had morethan 1,200 signatures.

“We’retrying to rally support for the argument that charging us for distribution isan unfair tax on our free speech,” she said. “This change makes usuncomfortable, because we care about free speech more than anything we do.”

Lennonalso disagreed with Orlando’s safety concerns.

“Withthe exception of a car running into one of the racks, I’m not sure that anyamount of wind could push them over,” she said. “They’re pretty heavy duty.”

Lennonis also trying to schedule a meeting with UF President Bernie Machen to discussthe situation, but has so far been unsuccessful.

Julincalled the legal issues involved “complicated.” While it is constitutional fora governmental entity to impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictionson the distribution of printed materials, he questions whether the university’sconcerns are reasonable in this case.

If theAlligator were to do nothing by the Aug. 15 deadline, Julin said he has beeninformed that the university would physically remove the 19 racks from campuswithout providing any compensation.

Alligator General Manager Patricia Careysaid the goal right now is to spread awareness of the dispute, adding that the staff is “very open” to engaging the universityin discussions about a solution.

Lennon agreed.

“Idon’t think the administration realizes how much having an independent Alligator means to the community,” shesaid. “Nor having that would be a huge loss.”

By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer