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Pensacola State Official Offers Embarrassingly Bad Justifications for Censorship of Student Media

Pensacola State College (PSC) administrators are coming up with all sorts of creative reasons why the student newspaper at the Florida public college, The Corsair, shouldn’t report on faculty labor disputes. Student journalists, faculty members, and free speech advocates have responded swiftly to explain why each of those reasons runs contrary to the law, common sense, or both.

Corsair editor Spenser Garber wrote an article about the Pensacola State College Faculty Association’s contract negotiations with the administration, published on October 31. According to Inside Higher Ed’s report today, Garber says he was tipped off to the story by someone who doesn’t work at PSC, and that it was his decision to interview faculty members. PSC President Ed Meadows, however, says Garber must have been recruited by faculty to write the story, apparently disbelieving that noteworthy news gets around to journalists indirectly sometimes.

Following that dubious line of thinking, PSC demanded in a letter from its counsel that faculty not speak with student journalists about the contract negotiations, citing a Florida statute prohibiting public employees from “[i]nstigating or advocating support … for an employee organization’s activities from … students … in institutions of higher learning.” Even if faculty members were “instigating” the interviews, and even if the interviews constituted “support” (which is frequently untrue), there’s a bigger problem: The particular portion of the statute cited by PSC’s counsel was found on its face to be an impermissible content- and viewpoint-based restriction on speech. In fact, as Inside Higher Ed notes, two different Florida courts ruled it unconstitutional on the same day.

PSC’s letter characterizes this unequivocal invalidation of the law in a footnote as follows: “Although courts have questioned its constitutionality, the statute remains in place.” Indeed, many statutes remain on the books after court decisions render them invalid, but that does not negate the immorality and foolishness of trying to enforce those statutes regardless.

But wait, there’s more! Meadows next offers this inspired defense:

Meadows said he is not sure why it is important for students to put information about the dispute into the paper in the first place. In his view, faculty pay and hours don’t affect students.

The student paper, Meadows said, can write about other things, like student awards, basketball games, crime, opinions and “non-college things.”

If students want to read about the labor dispute, Meadows said, they can read about it in the local newspaper. But he noted that the local paper didn’t pick up a story about the impasse. “If the local media doesn’t find it of interest, then why would students find it of interest, and of what benefit would it be for students to know?”

Oh right, that exception from the First Amendment under which speech loses protection when someone declares an issue simply too boring or irrelevant for the media. Wait, what?

As Corsair staff members have pointed out, faculty issues often affect students. Further, if the local media didn’t pick up the story, it is even more imperative that students be allowed to share information relating to the negotiations with their peers—or even with non-students who might read the paper. And, if it needs to be said, student speech at a public institution legally bound by the First Amendment does not lose its protection just because an administrator thinks the topic of conversation doesn’t affect the individuals writing about it. It would be a strange newspaper that reports only on items that pertain specifically to the writers’ lives.

Meadow’s last-ditch attempt to justify his interference with student reporting on faculty issues is where he truly shows his bad faith. Inside Higher Ed reports:

Meadows said even though the administration is not prevented from speaking with students about the labor impasse, he had declined to answer Garber’s questions about the dispute. That, Meadows said, means the paper can’t do a fair story even if it persists in speaking to faculty, because the paper won’t have the administration’s side of the story.

As Meadows said he told the newspaper’s staff adviser, who has since left the college and could not be reached for comment, “Good journalism requires two sides to every story and, unfortunately, I can’t give you the other side."

Calling The Corsair staff bad journalists because he refuses to speak to them about an issue? That’s a new low.

Regular Torch readers and those who have worked as journalists already know the many reasons why the student press is so important. As FIRE has written before, student journalists learn invaluable skills, provide a critically important service to their community, and gain a greater understanding of their free speech rights. FIRE is glad to see faculty and students pushing back against the PSC administration to defend their rights, and we hope Meadows and his administration soon recognize how deeply flawed their reasoning is.

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