Recently I wrote about Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU’s) threats against its student-run newspaper, the University Press, which had continued to accept the voluntary services of its former advisor after he was dismissed by the university from his advisory position. Torch readers may remember that FAU had told UP editor-in-chief Karla Bowsher that she was considered an employee of FAU, and that as an employee she was violating university policy by accepting the voluntary services of a non-employee. This was a clear violation of Bowsher’s and the UP‘s First Amendment right of freedom of association—and both the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists wrote letters to FAU to let the university know.
Fortunately, FAU President Mary Jane Saunders was quick to dispel the doubts about the newspaper’s First Amendment rights, offering a sterling defense of freedom of speech at FAU in response to the SPJ’s letter. Saunders’ response is so on the mark that I quote it here nearly in full:
Please be assured that as a citizen of a free society and a longtime member of the American academic academy, I am unequivocally committed to freedom of speech, and I will support that core principle throughout my tenure as the President of Florida Atlantic University. As far as I am concerned, all members of the FAU community, including students, faculty and staff, have an inherent right to speak out on any issue, meet with any person or group, and publish their thoughts and opinions in any news venue. These freedoms are fundamental in a democratic society, and they will be vigorously supported and defended throughout my years at FAU.
In a separate letter, FAU Vice President for Student Affairs Charles L. Brown assured SPJ that FAU is "as supportive of first amendment freedoms as you are" and that it "continue[s] to promote First Amendment freedoms." Bowsher later confirmed in a UP blog that Brown met with her and retracted FAU’s earlier order not to continue meeting with Michael Koretzky, the newspaper’s former advisor.
Saunders especially is to be commended for taking the high road here, and for so gracefully and forcefully defending freedom of speech at FAU. Having only recently assumed FAU’s presidency, we’re thrilled to see such a statement as one of her first official communications as FAU’s president. Her letter gives hope that perhaps, on Saunders’ watch, FAU may be able to make the transition from a yellow-light school to a green-light one—a rare distinction. I hope every student and faculty member at FAU has a chance to read her words.
Saunders also exemplifies a virtue we’ve discussed here recently—that of using the transition of leadership as an opportunity to reaffirm the bedrock values of the university, with freedom of speech high among them. I wrote about this in an entry pointing out the opportunities several of the schools on our Red Alert list have to start anew as their presidents announce their plans to move on and new leaders assume their place. Hopefully they will follow Saunders’ lead.