Independent Florida Alligator files suit over proposed distribution policy

FLORIDA – The University of Florida’s independent student newspaper has filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the university’s plan to replace two dozen of the newspaper’s racks after a months-long negotiation between the two groups failed to produce a compromise.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, Campus Communications, Inc., which publishes The Independent Florida Alligator, seeks both a temporary and preliminary injunction to stop the university from implementing the new distribution policy scheduled to take effect August 15.

Under the new policy, all publications would be required to sign a licensing agreement with the university and pay a fee in order to use newly purchased, school-owned distribution racks. Distribution outside of the school’s racks would be prohibited.

In all, 24 of the Alligator’s bright orange news racks would be either replaced or consolidated. Those racks represent about 80 percent of the newspaper’s distribution, according to the lawsuit.

Originally, the university planned to charge the paper $100 per year to rent out a full space in the rack and offered the Alligator a $300 credit for each rack it replaced. Following a meeting last week, the school’s attorney offered in an email Wednesday to waive the fee entirely.

Tom Julin, the attorney representing the paper, said that while the original fee is substantial, “that of course was not the heart of the problem.”

One of the paper’s main concerns is over the licensing agreement and the university’s ownership of distribution space, Julin said.

In the lawsuit, the paper argues the licensing agreement fails to specify the criteria used to determine when the university would grant or deny a license request. The paper also objects to the university’s ability to revoke the license at will.

Julin said is worried the new proposal could have a chilling effect on student editors, leading them to stray away from controversial stories if they felt that publishing them might jeopardize their ability to distribute in the university’s news racks.

The university has said that the new policy is not an attempt to control the Alligator’s content, but rather an attempt to alleviate safety and aesthetic concerns. In a July interview, University spokesman Steve Orlando said the Alligator’s racks don’t “blend in” with the campus and could pose a safety hazard during the tropical storms and hurricanes that plague Florida.

A meeting last week between Alligator representatives and the university raised new concerns for the paper after a university spokeswoman made a comment about the Alligator’s lack of coverage of a presidential search.

“It struck me as a highly inappropriate remark in the context,” Julin said. “I responded, maybe too sharply, that I hoped that the reference to the content was not intended as a threat that the news rack regulations would be used to influence the content.”

Janine Sikes, the university spokeswoman, said her comment about the coverage wasn’t representative of the school’s views.

“I’m a former Alligator reporter and a graduate of the University of Florida College of Communications, and I am disappointed personally, not on behalf of the university, personally, in the coverage of news by The Alligator. It’s a personal comment. It is my personal opinion and that’s all there is to it.”

Sikes said the university was “perplexed” to hear that the paper had filed suit.

“Essentially, it’s been a year and a half” of negotiations, Sikes said. “The University of Florida is moving forward. We do believe it’s a waste of resources to pursue a lawsuit. … We’ve put about everything on the table that we possibly could.”

Julin said the newspaper’s board of directors met Wednesday night after it received the email from Amy Hass, the school’s attorney, regarding the licensing fee and the university’s decision to continue with its plan to remove Alligator racks on August 15.

“We didn’t seem to be coming to terms here,” Julin said.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary injunction that would halt the university from removing the paper’s boxes while the lawsuit progresses and ultimately seeks to have the university’s plan struck down permanently. 

By Sara Gregory, SPLC staff writer