Questions Surround Funding Freeze of UNF Student Paper

By March 29, 2011

The racy cover photo from the latest issue of the University of North Florida (UNF) student newspaper, the Spinnaker, has caused a stir at the UNF campus and made some waves in the press. Chief among the media outlets to cover the matter is the Florida Times-Union, where Kate Howard has written a good summary of the controversy.

The cover itself is suggestive of a man performing oral sex on a womana way of promoting the issue’s feature on the health risks of oral sex. Josh Gore, editor in chief of the Spinnaker, describes the cover’s shock value as "minimal," and while readers can judge that for themselves, it clearly does not meet the legal definition of obscenity announced by the Supreme Court of the United States in Miller v. California (1973). Nonetheless, enough complaints have been received about the art that UNF President John Delaney has commented on it:

University President John Delaney said he has gotten many complaints, mostly from women, about the picture.

He said he thought the picture on the cover was distasteful and inappropriate, and a high school cheerleading camp held on campus this weekend compounded the problem. The Spinnaker is independent, Delaney said, but he questions their judgment – and asks them to do the same.

"It’s a student-run paper and we’re going to have some risque things. That’s what happens in a campus environment," Delaney said. "But this really kind of crossed a decency line."

Delaney stopped short of calling for an apology, saying he hopes to see an "appropriate response, whatever that’s going to be," from the newspaper.

I’m curious to see how Delaney would define an "appropriate response," but he at least seems to understand that the exercise of the newspaper’s First Amendment rights may sometimes involve stories and images with which not everyone will be comfortable.

However, UNF’s Student Government, which is responsible for some of the Spinnaker‘s funding, was less inclined to give the paper’s First Amendment rights a pass on this issue. Take, for instance, UNF student Ryan Winter, who, according to the Times-Union, "suggested pulling the remaining copies at a board meeting for the Center for Student Media," though this action was not taken. (Note: This is still stealing, even if it’s the student government that does it.)

In all, though, the Spinnaker‘s free speech rights seem to have survived the gauntlet of criticism.

Or did they? Regrettably buried in Howard’s story is this potentially revealing bit of information, which has escaped most subsequent coverage:

Late Monday night, the budget committee of the student government took a different vote: it voted to freeze funding for the Spinnaker for three days, saying it was not because of the cover but because the paper’s late delivery on Thursday rendered an ad they paid for useless. [Emphasis mine.]

At best, this strikes me as a reasonable complaint acted on most unreasonably. If the student government had been reliant on their ad appearing on a particular day and it did not, they could quite reasonably ask for a refund. But it hardly makes sense to respond to this by cutting off a portion of the paper’s funding, making it harder to carry out its missionand to keep the other organizations who pay for the Spinnaker‘s advertising space satisfied.

You don’t exactly have to be wearing a tinfoil hat to surmise that the student government’s timing here is more than just a coincidence. Spinnaker advisor John Timpe withholds his judgment, but points out that such measures have never been taken in similar incidents before. Gore himself is suspicious as well, noting for the Times-Union that "If they did want an excuse to freeze funding … I guess they found one." If indeed that turns out to be the case, it could constitute unconstitutional viewpoint-based retaliation by the Student Government, though again, that is only an "if" at this point.

The Spinnaker has appealed the funding freeze to the Student Government’s judicial branch, and hopes for a resolution as early as today. FIRE has been in contact with the Spinnaker as well, and is closely watching the case.

Hopefully there will be no need for FIRE to get further involved. Regardless, the incident has provided grist for FIRE’s Adam Kissel, who will be lecturing about free speech at UNF on Thursday afternoon. Looks like Adam will have one more issue to discuss before UNF students, though let’s hope it’s as a matter of recent history and not an ongoing violation of the First Amendment.

Schools: University of North Florida