By Bill Cotterell
Journalism students at the Universities of Georgia and Florida are getting a rare, hands-on lesson in what the First Amendment is — and isn’t — all about.
At Athens, the student editor and top staff of the Red and Black resigned last week to protest a management edict that required news be cleared by non-student supervisors who want more “good news” in the paper. A compromise was worked out, with the bosses backing down a bit and the students applying for their old jobs, but questions remain about editorial independence and university control.
It’s a valuable real-world lesson for college journalists. Soon, those who find jobs will be dealing with editors and publishers who will, to put it bluntly, tell them what to do. Often, they won’t like it, and sometimes, they’ll be right. Some will even quit rather than go along with some circulation-driven decisions about what to cover, but such crises are mercifully rare.
At Gainesville, the issue is less one of censorship and more like housekeeping. The university has advised the Independent Florida Alligator that its 19 distinctive orange newspaper racks, a UF tradition, are unwelcome on campus. The administration wants the papers stacked in some kind of nondescript molded plastic bins, alongside other free publications like apartment guides or coupon books for deals on beer, pizza, condoms and other staples of college life.
The Alligator, which is independent from the university, sued UF when the rack rule was adopted in 2009. Negotiations continued and the administration has given the racks a six-month reprieve. The administration has cited aesthetic concerns and, far less plausibly, the possibility that the racks will become dangerous flying debris in a bad storm.
One wonders if the Gator engineering school has studied such advanced Weather Channel techniques as taking small objects indoors or bolting them down.
Just as implausibly, though, the Alligator is arguing a First Amendment right to have its own racks on campus.
The usually lucid Miami Herald editorialized last week, “The university’s move to outlaw the racks threatens the very American notion of a free press.”
No, it doesn’t. The university’s move threatens the notion that there’s something magic about putting ink on paper, some implied exemption from the rules less-special people must obey. Reporters are not allowed to exceed the speed limit when rushing to crime scenes, nor may they secretly record telephone interviews. We’re not allowed to trespass on private property or carry concealed weapons without a permit, no matter that we’re in service of “the public’s right to know.”
Cities regulate placement of racks on sidewalks and can cause removal of those that become unsightly. Many towns have poor old men hawking papers from the center isles of highways, and cities have laws governing their mobility (if not their unsightliness.)
An orange Alligator rack may be a time-honored tradition on campus, but it’s really no different from a Coke machine. The university is not trying to control the content of the newspaper, as Red and Black managers attempted at UGa. No readers will be prevented from getting copies of the paper; rather, they’ll just take one from that big black modular thingie, instead of the little orange rack.
Alligator supporters — and Florida newsrooms are littered with them, as the UF j-school is one of the nation’s best — contend that removing the racks would hurt circulation, and thus, the paper’s revenue. Also, the independent organization would have to pay the university a fee to be in the authorized freebie bins. Loss of revenue would harm news coverage, they maintain.
That’s true. It’s also none of the university’s concern. Newspaper bottom lines are harmed by lots of things that do not rise to the level of violating ye olde Bill o’ Rights.
The students in Athens are using the First Amendment to assert their rights. The students in Gainesville want to cheapen it to get their way.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter who worked for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. Reach him by email here.