Students, activists react to Florida A&M U. yearbook controversy

Posted 10:40 a.m. Feb. 11

By Seth Goldman

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Criticism has been lodged at the Florida A&M University administration from free press activists and students for prohibiting the distribution of the 2000-01 Rattler yearbook last spring.

They allege the university violated students’ constitutional right to freedom of speech.

“The university completely ignored the First Amendment limitations,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “If the students did choose to go to court, there is no question they would win.”

Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that similar action by the Kentucky State University administration to prohibit the release of its 1993-94 yearbook unconstitutionally violated the students’ freedom of speech.

In both cases, the administrations cited overall poor quality of the yearbooks as their reason for withholding them. The list of grievances included the color of the covers, lack of photo captions and grammatical errors.

Activists and Florida A&M University students suspect the school’s administration is doing its best to censor an embarrassing complaint which 2000-01 Rattler editor Holly McGee lodged at the administration in her editor’s note.

“To the sneaky, back-handed and disrespectful person who simply moved more than $10,000 from the yearbook budget without so much as a ‘by your leave,’ you should be ashamed of yourself,” McGee wrote. “What gave you the right to cheat both the yearbook staff and the students of this institution?”

Despite the success of the Kentucy case, Tiffany Hayes, another editor of the 2001-02 Rattler, said she and her staff have decided not to challenge the administration in court. Rather, she is trying to work with the administration to get the yearbook to students as fast as possible.

Hayes compromised with administration officials earlier this year, agreeing to fix the grammatical errors in the yearbook one page at time in each of the 1,000 yearbooks, but she and her staff still do not have an office. If they do not get an office within the next two weeks, Hayes said she might distribute the yearbooks anyway.

“Every day I call, it’s supposed to be tomorrow,” Hayes said. “I’m starting to feel like I can’t wait much longer.”

When contacted, former Student Activities Director Ronald Joe said, “I think that it has all been worked out.”

Students at private universities like George Washington University might not have the same legal recourse as students at public schools, Goodman said, because the constitutional protections in the First Amendment only apply to acts of Congress.

“Private schools are not limited in the same way,” said Goodman. “Unless there is either a state law or a school policy that limits censorship, they can get away with whatever they want.”

The adviser to GWU’s yearbook staff, Debra Snelgrove, said that not only has “the university never taken such an action” to censor the yearbook, but that “the ultimate decision is (the students’)” to include or not include any content. “It’s student money for a student yearbook,” Snelgrove said. “My role is purely as an adviser.”

Snelgrove said she is unaware of any official school policy that ensures students’ freedom of speech.

GW students expressed a mixture of surprise and acceptance at their lack of constitutional protection but said students would not stand for censorship by the administration if attempted anyway.

“I don’t think anything would happen,” said freshman John Liu. But “if anything was to happen, we’d make a fuss about it.”

Hayes said she would continue to work to avoid a lengthy court battle so students could get their yearbooks as soon as possible, but she said students should know their rights and fight for them when necessary.

“The First Amendment right is one of the greatest rights we the American people have,” Hayes said. “You have to stand up for your rights and the rights of others.”

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