NEWS RELEASE: Award recognizes Central Florida college journalists for bucking aggressive campus secrecy tactics





FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

October 24, 2016
Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, SPLC Executive Director
director@splc.org or 202-785-5450

The editors and staff of Knight News at the University of Central Florida were presented Oct. 22 with the annual College Press Freedom Award, in recognition of their extraordinary determination in pursuing disclosure of public records in the face of brutal attacks by their university.

The award is jointly sponsored by the Student Press Law Center, the Associated Collegiate Press and Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, which funds a cash prize in memory of a group of courageous LSU editors (“the Reveille Seven”) who braved retaliation for speaking out against political corruption.

Knight News received the award at the ACP’s National College Media Convention in Washington, D.C., attended by some 1,500 college journalism students and advisers.

“We have rarely seen a university attack its student journalists with the viciousness of the University of Central Florida and its legal team. The university’s tactics have crossed the line from ‘aggressive’ into ‘rabid,’ with no conceivable purpose other than to harass Knight News and to inflict needless cost and delay,” SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte said.

Since 2013, Knight News has filed three open-government lawsuits against UCF, fighting for access to records of campus election irregularities and to campus disciplinary board hearings where fraternity hazing cases are adjudicated. UCF has fiercely resisted transparency on each occasion, frequently falling back on the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Statute (“FERPA”), even for documents that are neither educational nor confidential, such as reports of expense reimbursements paid to student government officers.

In response, UCF has launched a counterattack including persistently demanding that Knight News – a nonprofit corporation with an annual budget of about $30,000 – pay the university’s legal bills, even on occasions when Knight News has been on the prevailing side. (Government agencies are expected to absorb the costs of defending themselves in open-government cases, except in the rare instance that a claim is proven completely frivolous.) The university has also threatened to seek disqualification of Knight News’ attorney for speaking out against the university’s concealment tactics at a UCF board meeting, and served the newspaper with a demand for disclosure of privileged internal newsroom communications irrelevant to the open-records status of UCF documents.

LoMonte noted that this is the first time that the award has been presented to an online-only publication, reflecting the increasing diversification of campus news sources. That the editors of Knight News are willing to press their college for access to campus news events is doubly important with the recent announcement that UCF’s long-established student newspaper, the Central Florida Future, would cease publishing after a 48-year run.

“Knight News is the information lifeline for the UCF community, and it has fought at great risk to gather the information needed to hold the university publicly accountable – information that is readily produced at other colleges without a struggle,” LoMonte said.

LoMonte said the award is especially timely because college media nationally are facing unprecedented hostility to public accountability and transparency, exemplified by the University of Kentucky’s recent decision to sue its own student-run newspaper to conceal the records of a sexual harassment investigation that ended with a veteran professor’s resignation.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. An archive of previous winners of the SPLC’s college and high-school journalism awards is online at: http://www.splc.org/page/high-school-and-college-press-freedom-awards.

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