Florida school loses First Amendment battle

Washburn Review Washburn Review

What would you do if the Review suddenly stopped doing their job? If all of our editorial staff was suddenly fired and replaced with a new staff, eager to do a much different task? 

At Florida A&M University, this has happened, and it has caused quite an uproar–as it should. The university’s publication, “The Famuan,” came under criticism for publishing articles that were “negative” in nature. The articles were about a drum major student who was beaten to death aboard the band bus after a football game in November 2011. This is news that must be reported, no matter how awful the story becomes. 

Here’s where it gets messy: the paper incorrectly reported that a fellow drum major was involved in the student’s death. They quickly corrected the article, but the damage had already been done. The fellow drum major filed a libel suit against the paper and the university, which freaked out the school administration even more. 

To counteract this suit, the dean of the journalism school at Florida A&M shut down the paper for a month, sending a vague email to staff members about “balancing students’ rights to a free press.” This month-long hiatus left staff members unpaid and confused. To add insult to injury, the journalism school fired the advisor and editor of the paper, hired new ones and didn’t tell the remaining staff adequately. 

According to a blog chronicling these events, the news editor of the publication, Karl Etters, had to go through another interview, which was vague and pointed, and he didn’t get the job in the end. He was replaced by another applicant, who is apparently good at the job, but also fits the “vision of the Famuan.” 

This new vision the administration of the school is instituting is more suited for a public relations team, not a staff of journalists. Etters wrote an editorial piece titled “We are Journalists, Not Publicists” to vent his frustration in the situation. We agree with him wholeheartedly.

Student publications are bound to make mistakes. They are a learning lab for students to stretch their skills, and learn how the real world of journalism works. Sadly, mistakes do happen. However, one mistake is not cause enough for a newspaper to be shut down and repurposed as a PR machine.

The First Amendment is our most important set of rights as citizens of this country. The freedom of having an uninhibited press, among other things, is taken for granted every day, and we at the Review are taking this moment to recognize our freedom and appreciate it. 

We are lucky, as we are independent of Washburn and not subject to this kind of censorship. Anytime a situation like the one at the Famuan arises, we feel sad for the folks involved. No one deserves to be subjected to overbearing administration, nor lose their job over it. In the case of publishing the student’s name in connection to a homicide, it comes down to personal discretion. Was the student actually involved? Is the student named as a suspect, or just a “person of interest?” More questions must be asked before publishing something that could potentially result in a ruined reputation. 

No two situations or stories are alike. Each one must be handled with care and proper preparation in order for it to be successful. Journalism is the documentation of history and daily life; getting something wrong can spell the end of a career. While we don’t know the exact situation behind the events that occurred at Florida A&M, we can say this: shutting down and changing the face of the publication is the wrong approach. 

The administration of the journalism school acted too harshly, and we hope the student body cries out for the original publication. We hope the tuition-paying students of Florida A&M shout loudly for their quality news source to come back. We hope people haven’t become disillusioned about what is news and what is fluff. Too many excellent changes have occurred in the world because of quality journalism. It would be a shame to teach an entire class of students the wrong thing.

The new PR machine that is the Famuan premieres Jan. 30. It will be interesting to see what kind of fight the old staff wages against their administration and the new staff. We say “fight the good fight” for the rights of student publications, and never stop. Aspiring journalists should learn this tactic in their own programs. 

We hope you don’t take your freedoms for granted, because we certainly don’t. We also hope you enjoy this issue of the Review, because we enjoyed putting it together for you.