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 violated the students’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
In both cases, officials 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 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, blaming the university for removing $10,000 from the yearbook budget.
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 the university earlier this year, agreeing to fix grammatical errors in the yearbook in each of the 1,000 yearbooks.
If they do not get an office within the next two weeks, Hayes said she might distribute the yearbooks anyway.
“Everyday I call, it’s supposed to be tomorrow,” Hayes said. “I’m starting to feel like I can’t wait much longer.”
Students at private universities like GW might not have the same legal recourse as students at public schools, Goodman said, because the constitutional protections only apply to acts of Congress.
“Private schools are not limited in the same way,” Goodman said.
“Unless there is either a state law or a school policy that limits censorship, they can get away with whatever they want.”
Debra Snelgrove, who advises GW’s yearbook staff, said “the University (has) never taken such an action” to censor the yearbook.
“The ultimate decision is (the students’)” to include or not include any content, Snelgrove said.
“It’s student money for a student yearbook,” Snelgrove said. “My role is purely as an adviser.”
Some GW students said they 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.”
This article appeared in the February 11, 2002 issue of the Hatchet.