The Famuan situation
By Debra Chandler Landis
Managing Editor, College Media Review
Student Publications Adviser, University of Illinois Springfield
Florida A&M University officials insist they weren’t censoring student journalists when they postponed publication of The Famuan for two weeks the month of January 2013 and required student editors who thought they had jobs for spring semester to reapply.
The decision to take these actions, university officials told the College Media Review and other media and media law organizations, stemmed from a libel suit filed in December 2012 against The Famuan and the university. The suit, brought by Keon Harris, says, in part, that the student newspaper wrongly reported that he had been suspended from Florida A&M because of his involvement with the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion.
Of the decision to delay the first issue of The Famuan until Jan. 30, Valerie White told CMR in an e-mailed statement, “It was made in an effort to preserve The Famuan, but a few students made it about them instead of seeing the big picture.”
White is the director of the Division of Journalism in Florida A&M’s School of Journalism and Graphic Communication. She is also director of the school’s graduate program and chair of the Black College Communication Association, a not-for-profit organization that says its mission is “to identify resources necessary for strengthening communications programs at historically black colleges and universities; provide technical assistance to historically black colleges and universities seeking accreditation; and establish state-of-the-art hardware systems which can be shared by member institutions to promote the understanding and advancement of communication as an academic and professional field.”
Of the issues involving The Famuan, White said she was limited in what she could say because of FERPA, the libel suit and personnel and privacy rules.
White did tell the CMR, however: “Some of the information that has been reported is not true. And the truth will come out, but not right now due to pending litigation.”
Kanya Simon Stewart has been named adviser for the student newspaper for the spring 2013 semester. She follows Andrew Skerritt, who held the job for more than four years.
Ann Kimbrough, dean of the Florida A&M School of Journalism and Graphic Communication, declined to comment on Skerritt’s removal as adviser, citing a personnel issue, but told news media his removal wasn’t related to the libel suit. Skerritt remains an assistant professor of journalism at the university, according to reporting by Sara Gregory, who has been covering the Florida A&M situation for the Student Press Law Center.
Skerritt said he was removed from his position as adviser to The Famuan.
“It was not voluntary,” Skerritt said, adding, “I thought we had a good fall and a good staff and were preparing for a good spring.”
Skerritt, The Famuan adviser for more than four years, declined to comment on reasons given for his removal as adviser. He also declined comment about the libel suit and whether he thought his teaching appointment at Florida A&M could be in jeopardy. Skerritt said his position as assistant professor of journalism is not a tenure-track appointment.
A former newspaper editor and columnist, Skerritt said he wants to continue to write and teach. He is the author of the non-fiction book, “Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial, and the AIDS Epidemic in the South,” published in 2011 by Lawrence Hill Books in Chicago. In the book, Skerritt writes, in part, “HIV/AIDS remains a significant public health and social justice crisis in the United States, and the South in particular is heavily burdened. Poverty, poor education, and limited community resources conspire against people who live in the rural South.”
That book shows the kind of journalistic work I do,” he said.
Of Stewart’s hiring, Kimbrough said in an e-mail to the College Media Review, “At this time, Ms. Stewart’s appointment is for the spring semester. She will work with both news and advertising operations. It is a 100-percent advising appointment that she will share with a faculty member.”
A university press release sent to the College Media Review said Stewart is a 2004 FAMU graduate who majored in journalism and magazine production and has worked as associate editor, senior reporter and page designer for the Capitol Outlook newspaper in Tallahassee.
While a student at FAMU, Stewart “served as the managing editor and senior writer for Journey magazine. She also served as a staff editor and writer for the Famuan,” according to the press release.
In the release, Kimbrough said of Stewart, “Kanya offers students and the FAMU community a wealth of knowledge as a multi-media communicator. She has proven integrity, leadership, excellent multi-media skills and a strong commitment to ensuring that future journalists and graphic designers receive excellent training in a key student media laboratory.”
Karl Etters was Famuan editor-in-chief for fall 2012 and was hired as editor-in-chief for spring 2013. He interviewed for the top editor job again but was not re-hired. Asked if Etters would have a position on the Famuan staff this spring, Kimbrough offered CMR a one-word answer: “No.”
The number of former Famuan staff rehired for spring “is being determined,” Kimbrough said.
Etters told the Student Press Law Center he was disappointed but not surprised to learn he was not rehired as editor-in-chief for spring 2013.
“To me it seems like this was all a ruse to put somebody else as editor,” Etters told the SPLC. “That’s how it feels. A horse is a horse no matter which way you look at it.”
Etters said he asked Stewart for feedback as to why he was not rehired.
“The short answer is I didn’t fit into the vision of the paper,” Etters told the SPLC, noting that Stewart objected to one of the answers he gave in his interview.
“I said something along the lines of ‘we publish the truth whether it’s positive or negative, good or bad’,” he said. “She said that she didn’t like my answer about negative stories. … I would never say that’s a goal, writing negative stories. But holding people accountable doesn’t constitute negative stories.”
Kimbrough, asked by College Media Review if Florida A&M considers The Famaun to be an editorially independent student newspaper, said, “The Famuan is a student-run newspaper that has been in existence since 1909. There is oversight, but students make the decision about the stories and content.”
The libel suit
Keon Hollis is also suing the Cox Media Group, which owns WFTV in Atlanta, for libel.
A June 12, 2012, issue of the Florida Higher Education Spectator said in part: “The roommate of the Florida marching band member who died from hazing in November claims in court that Cox Media defamed him by calling him one of the perpetrators of the hazing, though he was a victim of it.”
Hollis, who was Champion’s roommate, was also a drum major and a member of the school’s marching band.
Florida A&M’s Office of the General Counsel said the university hired off-campus legal counsel for representation against the libel charges. Atlanta lawyer Audrey Tolson’s office confirmed Tolson is representing Hollis.
Student Press Law Center links:
- Former Famuan editor loses job after being forced to reapply by FAMU journalism dean
- Florida A&M student paper’s publication suspended, adviser removed
- Former Famuan editors start “underground” online publication, Ink and Fangs
From the June 14, 2012, Florida Higher Education Spectator: