INDIANAPOLIS — Sonny Albarado, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, last week wrote Ann Kimbrough of Florida A&M University’s journalism school out of concern for its student journalists’ First Amendment rights. SPJ President-elect David Cuillier co-authored the letter.
The production of the student newspaper The Famuan was suspended in January because of a libel suit filed against the paper and the university. The editor-in-chief Karl Etters was forced to reapply for his job and was not rehired, supposedly because of his dedication to holding the administration accountable through news coverage. Etters was a reporter when the allegedly libelous story was published in December 2011.
The circumstances of Etters’ re-interview process could be interpreted as punishment for criticizing the university, the letter states, and such actions threaten press freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. A copy of Albarado and Cuillier’s letter follows this news release.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information on SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.
Feb. 5, 2013
Dean Ann Kimbrough School of Journalism and Graphic Communication Florida A&M University 510 Orr Drive Suite 4003 Tallahassee, FL 32307
Dear Dean Kimbrough,
We are writing to you on behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, regarding the recent treatment of Famuan student journalists during the past month.
We understand this is a trying time for the journalism school because of the pending litigation, the reorganization of the student newspaper, hiring a new adviser and training the newspaper's staff. We do not wish to get involved in personnel matters regarding staff.
But we were concerned when we found out the student editor was required, without explanation and in a closed process, to re-interview for the job for which he was well qualified and then was not selected. Regardless of intent, this action creates a chilling effect on all students because it can be viewed as retaliation for the student’s criticisms of the university. It's particularly troubling that, according to the student, he was told he was not selected because he was too negative.
As a former journalist, you no doubt understand the importance of a free and unfettered press. As a school administrator you are part of the government, which can be an awkward position, particularly for a journalism educator. Actions viewed as punitive toward student journalists can be interpreted as affronts to their First Amendment rights, which we believe is the case here.
We believe there are a few good solutions, however, that can protect the university and the students, and engender a positive atmosphere moving forward:
1. Expand the newspaper’s publications board to include working professionals, faculty and students, and establish an open process for editor selection rather than have editors selected in secret by a staff adviser. Four-year universities typically employ media boards to select editors in open public meetings. This process provides transparency and credibility for the school, avoiding the appearance of cronyism and retribution against students who question authority.
2. Adopt a policy for student media that ensures journalists’ rights are protected. The Student Press Law Center provides a model policy that many universities have adopted (http://www.splc.org/pdf/SPLCModelCollegeGuidelines.pdf). Once adopted by the university administration, this policy will send a strong message that FAMU values and protects student journalism.
Without these actions, we feel FAMU students would be vulnerable to arbitrary actions that infringe on their First Amendment rights and result in graduating students who are unprepared to work as effective independent journalists, especially as watchdogs of the powerful.
Ultimately, that is the goal for all of us – to best serve students and journalism!
If you would like to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to contact me or President-elect Dave Cuillier at my email or cellphone.
Sincerely, Sonny Albarado President, Society of Professional Journalists firstname.lastname@example.org 501-551-8811
David Cuillier President-elect, Society of Professional Journalists email@example.com 520-626-9694