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 university began in October, when students writing for the University Press began investigating student government officials' self-granted 25-percent retroactive pay 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 Press staffers out of their office because the paper's employment contracts were not signed 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 a Feb. 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 chair of 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 the additional 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.

Associate Dean of Student Affairs Lisa Bardill said the school supports both the University Press and the student government. She said the newspaper's funding has been an issue she has thought about before.

"It has been my belief for some time that we should look into how the student newspaper is funded," she said. Some options the school has considered include consulting with the College Media Advisers to evaluate alternative sources for funding, gaining funding from the College of Journalism or determining if the paper could generate enough revenue to become independent, Bardill said.

But Koretzky said the University Press will probably never become financially independent because since FAU is in an urban area, it has a lot of competition for 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 the 1990s, but "both failed quickly," he said, because of the competition.

Unless FAU allocates money to the newspaper that is not funneled through the student government, the student government is legally responsible for allocating its funding. Under a statute in the 2004 Florida Education Code, the student activity and service fees are intended "for lawful purposes to benefit the student body," specifically naming student publications as one of those purposes. The statute specifies that the "allocation and expenditure of the fund shall be determined by the student government association of the university."

While the student government's control over the funding and the presumption among some that they thus control content of the newspaper has been a problem at Florida Atlantic University, it has not always been this way.

Until the mid-1970s, school officials at public colleges in Florida had more control over the funding and content of student newspapers. Following a legal battle between Florida 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 that Florida Atlantic University's former president, Kenneth Williams, was infringing on students' First Amendment rights when he fired three student editors for publishing "incorrect and misleading" content that he did not approve of in the former 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 International University and New College.

At Florida International University, the student government cut the student newspaper's budget for the 2005-2006 school year, but the Beacon's Managing Editor John Level said most of the money was reinstated once the newspaper contacted school administrators. Aside from the attempted budget cut, Lovell said the Beacon has not had any problems with the student government controlling their funding, but he said it would be nice 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 school administration or student government," he said. The Beacon, however, does not plan to seek independence because the newspaper's staff is "pretty pleased with the way things are," Lovell said.

At the University of Central Florida, the student newspaper is financially independent, which is preferable to the situation at FAU, said Ashley Burns, managing editor of Central Florida 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 in the student government, then that paper really can't report on it because it's putting itself at risk of losing its funding," Burns said.

The student government has exerted more than just financial control over the newspaper in years past. In 1998, a former Florida Atlantic University student government president fired the editor in chief and suspended six other staffers at the University Press after the paper published a "sexually explicit column." The student government president also accused the newspaper staff of sabotaging computers, 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.

reports, Spring 2005