Student Senate freezes campus newspaper funds

Friday, March 12, 1999

Three days before the start of spring break, the Florida A&M; University Student Senate voted to freeze funding of the campus newspaper to punish it for a 20-year tradition of endorsing candidates for student office.

On March 3, the Student Senate voted to block The Famuan's bank accounts for 10 days for violating part of the Student Government Association's finance code that prohibits student fees from being used by any political organization or for any endorsements. The Famuan receives most of its $40,000 annual budget from student fees.

The newspaper's editors and student-press advocates say the action violates First Amendment free-press rights. Attempts to reach student editors and student government leaders weren't successful due to spring break.

But Student Senate President Glenn Davis told the Tallahassee Democrat last week that the newspaper clearly broke SGA rules. He compared it to the curbs on free speech basketball players agree to when they sign contracts with the National Basketball Association.

“One could make an argument about NBA players,” Davis said. “Shaquille O'Neal plays for the L.A. Lakers. He plays in the NBA. He's subject to its rules.”

Robert Ruggles, dean of the School of Journalism, Media and Graphic Arts at Florida A&M, said the incident started after an SGA presidential candidate complained when he failed to receive The Famuan's endorsement. Ruggles noted that the student, Corey Alston, didn't complain when he received the paper's endorsement for another office last year.

“I think it's interesting that this kid enjoyed the endorsement and now sees something terribly wrong with it,” Ruggles said.

Mike Hiestand, attorney for the Student Press Law Center, says the courts on this issue have been very protective of student publications. The rationale, he says, is that because student funds are public monies, the SGA is a government entity subject to the same laws as a city council or university board of trustees.

“And one of the things they are barred from doing is using power of the purse to control the editorial power of the publication,” Hiestand said.

“But often student government officials don't understand that there are First Amendment laws on the books and that they can't do whatever they want,” he said. “As government officials, they are bound by limits placed on them by the First Amendment. Once they understand that, they usually, begrudgingly, accept that fact.”

In a similar incident at the University of Rhode Island last December, the Student Senate froze the budget of the campus newspaper, The Good 5 Cent Cigar, after the publication of a controversial cartoon.

Press groups rallied behind the newspaper, offering donations so it could continue publishing. The Student Senate later decided to restore the newspaper's budget but voted to ask the staff to apologize to students and faculty who were offended by the cartoon's racial message.

Ruggles said the Student Senate's action at Florida A&M; shouldn't keep The Famuan from publishing its next edition, scheduled for March 18. In fact, he thinks the endorsement issue will blow over altogether with a little education and revision.

“I believe this is a tempest in a teapot,” he said. “I don't think they're really going to freeze anything. Our goal is to try to work with them to get this code rewritten. I think a lot of people's free speech is tied up here, not just The Famuan's. The band and other groups ought to have the right to endorse candidates if they want to.

“My feeling is, we've got to sit in with them and explain what the First Amendment is about,” Ruggles said. “The Senate shouldn't put rings on them just because they get this money.”