Lingering Questions About Press Freedom at UCF Following Student Government Elections

By on March 5, 2010

KnightNews.com, an independent online publication owned and operated by students at the University of Central Florida (UCF), can’t get an answer from UCF as to why its reporters were confined to a "free press zone" (KnightNews.com’s term) as it covered recent Student Government Association elections. FIRE has not been able to to get an answer from UCF either, other than to say that the facts laid out in our recent letter to UCF President John C. Hitt were "not correct." We’re not kiddingthat’s all the letter said. We guess we’re supposed to take UCF’s word for it.

The trouble began last Monday, when, as KnightNews.com reports, "SGA officials threatened to call UCF Police on KnightNews.com reporters for covering the SGA election outside the Student Union."

Initially, KnightNews.com was told by a representative from UCF’s student union that its reporters were not allowed to set up a table from which they had planned to stream election coverage live, after attempting to do so. (FIRE has so far found no basis for this rule.) KnightNews.com continues:

KnightNews.com reporters then abandoned our livestream coverage attempt, and instead talked to students about the election on camera.

As that was happening, [Student Government Association] Comptroller [Shane] Chism and [Michael Kilbride-Taylor Lochrane ticket] campaigner walked up to a KnightNews.com crew and said, "Didn’t they tell you you weren’t allowed to record?"

Chism then proceeded to walk over the election commission and brought an election commissioner over, who could not be immediately identified, who also said, "Didn’t the people from the Union tell you you weren’t allowed to record?"

The KnightNews.com crew informed the SGA officials the Union only said a table could not be set up. At this point, KnightNews.com walked inside the Union and talked to the information desk about Chism confronting us. The employee at the information desk called upstairs, and a decision was made to allow KnightNews.com to record on another side of the sidewalk.

Knightnews.com crews then stood on the side of the line where recording was not allowed, with our cameras packed away out of sight, and discussed the legal and first amendment issues raised by forbidding campus media to fully cover the election.

At that point, SGA Chief Election Commissioner Marlee Populder and KnightNews.com owner Andrew Stein discussed the situation together. Stein said it was ridiculous for them to tell media they can’t record video, when media always conducts interviews in that space near the Union on a regular basis.

Stein asked what SGA would do if we recorded on the other side of the line anyway, and it was at that point when Popluder informed Stein, as a courtesy, that other SGA officials were threatening to call the police on KnightNews.com if they shot video over the sidewalk.

KnightNews.com then hinted at the possibility that it received unequal treatment:

During this time, a student was taking pictures of the Kilbride campaign and interviewing his campaigners on the side of the line KnightNews.com was forbidden from doing "any media stuff" on. KnightNews.com took a photo of that individual taking photos on that side of the line to document the additional access he was given.

The reporter granted access seems to have been with the Central Florida Future, another independent, student-run UCF newspaper, which KnightNews.com says was not subject to the same restrictions. KnightNews.com posted these photographs and videos to support its argument. It also briefly discusses the controversy in a video posted here

FIRE was contacted by KnightNews.com two days later, after it had been told that if its representatives left this designated area after the results of the election were unveiled at 5:00 PM, they could be arrested by the university police. FIRE contacted UCF President John C. Hitt that day to alert his administration to this possible violation of KnightNews.com’s free speech. In the meantime, FIRE suggested that KnightNews.com have an attorney present if it planned to leave the area to cover the results. KnightNews.com, fortunately, was able to get an attorney to campus on such short notice, and left the designated area after 5:00 PM without interference.

Things aren’t quite over for KnightNews.com, however. Shortly following the conclusion of the SGA elections, FIRE received a response from UCF Associate General Counsel Youndy C. Cook, telling FIRE that "the results relayed in your correspondence are not correct." That would be the extremely helpful (ha ha) response we mentioned above. FIRE has not been given any further explanation, however; nor, to our knowledge, has KnightNews.com.

Certain other factors may have played into UCF’s handling of the situation. KnightNews.com, for one, endorsed students Daniel Seeff and Kevin Wolkenfeld (who narrowly lost the election) for SGA President and Vice President, whereas the Central Florida Future chose not to officially endorse either ticket. Also broached has been the question of whether or not KnightNews.com reporters were possibly in violation of SGA Election Statutes because its reporters were wearing campaign T-shirts, whereas the Future‘s reporters were not. KnightNews.com responds to this by saying that one of its reporters had initially been wearing such a T-shirt, but turned the shirt inside out to avoid any untoward appearances. (You can see the interviewer’s inside-out T-shirt in KnightNews.com’s video coverage.)

KnightNews.com believes its uneven treatment was intentional and that SGA representatives deliberately changed the rules to exclude KnightNews.com as a result of its criticisms of the outgoing SGA leadership, whose president endorsed the winning Kilbride-Lochrane ticket. This is possible, though it is also possible that the election statutes were simply over-interpreted.

SGA statutes would seem to treat KnightNews.com as a third-party organization, falling under the same regulations as candidates seeking SGA office, as a result of its endorsement of the Seeff-Wolkenfeld ticket. Did SGA see KnightNews.com’s interviews and coverage as "campaigning?" If so, I’m not sure where in the statutes SGA found the rationale to do so; the rules for "Active Campaigning" seem narrowly tailored to the "[d]istribution of campaign materials," including "[t]he fifteen (15) foot boundary surrounding the Election Tent," and don’t seem to cover KnightNews.com or the Future‘s activities. (The statutes also have nothing to say about media coverage in general, much less the right of reporters to wear T-shirts supporting one ticket or another.)

Besides, to exclude KnightNews.com on this ground would seemingly be to exclude all candidates and supporters from any campaigning outside the student union, which it plainly doesn’t do, with the exception of the fifteen-foot halo surrounding the voting station.

Whether KnightNews.com’s treatment was the result of an over-cautious interpretation or a deliberate misapplication of election statutes, FIRE and KnightNews.com don’t know, and the UCF administration hasn’t been willing to tell us. Until we get further clarification on just what happened and why it happened, other media organizations should consider UCF’s actions as a warning shot. The next time an SGA election rolls around, they could be next.

If UCF needs a reminder that it cannot just wish this issue away, let FIRE point out that almost four years ago to this day we declared victory at UCF in another election-related case, after it charged a student with harassment when he created the Facebook group "Victor Perez is a Jerk and a Fool," in opposition to a student senate candidate. If UCF finally decides it wants to grow up, it will give FIRE and KnightNews.com some real answers.

Schools: University of Central Florida