Florida A&M student paper's publication suspended, adviser removed

FLORIDA — The student newspaper at Florida A&M university has been suspended from publishing, its adviser removed and its staff told they must reapply for their positions by the dean of FAMU’s School of Journalism and Graphic Communication.

Editor Karl Etters learned of The Famuan’s suspension Monday, the first day of the spring semester, during a meeting with Dean Ann Kimbrough. A schoolwide email announcement of the suspension was made Tuesday morning.

“We are working to balance students’ rights to a free press through this process while also ensuring that The Famuan has the proper support from the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication as it serves as a training unit for up and coming journalists,” Kimbrough said in the email.

FAMU administrators declined to comment beyond a brief statement. The statement cites a libel lawsuit as one of the things that prompted the publication’s suspension. Last month, the paper was sued for defamation for an article it published following the hazing death of FAMU drum major Robert Champion.

The December 2011 article incorrectly stated that Keon Hollis, a fellow drum major, had been suspended in connection with Champion’s hazing death. No disciplinary action was taken against Hollis, according to a correction published by the paper in February 2012. The original article has been removed from the paper’s website.

Kimbrough, who took over as dean last August, said in an interview that she’s been told that the reporter who wrote the piece in question was not enrolled at the university, which is a requirement for working on student publications. She said the reporter said the information came from “reliable sources,” but that he wouldn’t identify who the sources were.

As a new dean, Kimbrough said she was already reviewing all of the student publications that operate through the journalism school when she learned of the lawsuit. She said she did research on the Student Press Law Center’s website and concluded that more training would be beneficial for students.

Kimbrough said she didn’t believe that pushing back the paper’s publication interfered with the students’ ability to make their own editorial decisions.

“The students do have the right to publish as they see fit,” she said, adding that because the paper is under the umbrella of the school of journalism and “not an independent separate organization,” that it was reasonable to ask them to undergo additional training.

Kimbrough said she could not comment on adviser Andrew Skerritt’s removal, which happened last Friday, because it was a personnel issue. She said it was unrelated to the lawsuit and that the timing was “just a coincidence.” The school’s statement doesn’t address Skerritt’s removal, either.

“The adviser’s situation was something that happened and occurred long before I arrived,” Kimbrough said. “It was something that I inherited. This removal was already to be.”

Skerritt, who has advised the paper for four-and-a-half years, declined to comment on the reasons he was given for his removal. He remains an assistant professor of journalism at the school.

“We want to do whatever we can to prepare our students to be the best journalists they can be,” Skerritt said. “I’m glad to have had the chance to do that.”

Staff have been told they will have to undergo training in media law and ethics, but Etters said most have already taken the journalism school’s media law class. In addition, he said they’ve been told some of the training will focus on more general journalism principles.

“To me it feels redundant,” Etters said. “That’s what we do every day.”

Etters said the staff didn’t learn they would have to reapply until Tuesday night, in a meeting with Kimbrough to contest the publication suspension. It’s not clear whether the requirement that staff reapply is connected with Kimbrough’s discovery that some previous staff were ineligible.

The paper hires new editors every semester, and Etters said the spring semester’s staff was hired in December just before winter break. He said the staff all plan to reapply.

Kimbrough said this is being required of staff because the hiring process was not properly completed in December. She said that she’s seen no paperwork regarding the hirings and that her decision to have students reapply was made so that there would be a “fair process to all.”

Kimbrough said she is trying to find an interim adviser and that other journalism school faculty will advise the paper until then. The paper will resume publishing on Jan. 30.

Etters said he was not sure whether he or other staff members will contest the suspension further, but says they are considering doing so.

By Sara Gregory, SPLC staff writer. Contact Gregory by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 125.