Knight News at the University of Central Florida (UCF) has won this year’s College Press Freedom Award. The online publication’s staff and editors were chosen “in recognition of their extraordinary determination in pursuing disclosure of public records in the face of brutal attacks by their university,” according to a press release from the Student Press Law Center (SPLC).
“We have rarely seen a university attack its student journalists with the viciousness of the University of Central Florida and its legal team,” SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte said in the release. “The university’s tactics have crossed the line from ‘aggressive’ into ‘rabid,’ with no conceivable purpose other than to harass Knight News and to inflict needless cost and delay.”
Knight News reporter Derek Lowe told FIRE that while the awards ceremony on October 22 at the Associated Collegiate Press’ National College Media Convention in Washington, D.C., was an “awesome” experience, Knight News’ work getting UCF to release a variety of public records is far from over.
“I would just call it a victory of a battle in a war,” Lowe said. “There’s still a fight ahead. But it does feel good to be recognized.”
In its press release, SPLC detailed the risk Knight News staffers have undertaken over the past three years “to gather the information needed to hold the university publicly accountable – information that is readily produced at other colleges without a struggle”:
Since 2013, Knight News has filed three open-government lawsuits against UCF, fighting for access to records of campus election irregularities and to campus disciplinary board hearings where fraternity hazing cases are adjudicated. UCF has fiercely resisted transparency on each occasion, frequently falling back on the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy [Act] (“FERPA”), even for documents that are neither educational nor confidential, such as reports of expense reimbursements paid to student government officers.
In response, UCF has launched a counterattack including persistently demanding that Knight News – a nonprofit corporation with an annual budget of about $30,000 – pay the university’s legal bills, even on occasions when Knight News has been on the prevailing side. (Government agencies are expected to absorb the costs of defending themselves in open-government cases, except in the rare instance that a claim is proven completely frivolous.) The university has also threatened to seek disqualification of Knight News’ attorney for speaking out against the university’s concealment tactics at a UCF board meeting, and served the newspaper with a demand for disclosure of privileged internal newsroom communications irrelevant to the open-records status of UCF documents.
Lowe, a junior who has worked for the paper for two years, said that while he wasn’t at UCF in 2013 when the first lawsuits were filed, he has personally suffered in the aftermath.
“I’ve lost friendships,” he said. “Unfortunately it came to the point where we had to pursue legal action [against UCF]. In order to do that there were students, for example, some in student government, that we had to name in the lawsuit. They weren’t too keen on that.”
But Lowe said he understands the importance of the work Knight News is doing and said the publication isn’t deterred. And despite winning the College Press Freedom Award, Lowe said the paper doesn’t feel vindicated just yet.
“Its definitely an honor to be receiving this award,” Lowe said. “It’s is definitely motivation to keep moving forward with our fight.”
FIRE congratulates the staff and editors of Knight News for their excellent work on behalf of press freedom at UCF.