Punished for a crime they didn’t commit

Imagine you drive a taxi.

A fellow cabbie is arrested for driving drunk. So the cab company mandates training for all the other cabbies.

So far, so good.

But the cab company says you won’t be paid for a month – and at the end of that month, you’ll need to reapply for your job. When you ask why, the boss refuses to talk. She even blames you for what happened to the drunk cabbie who worked across town.

It’s not fare

Meet Karl Etters, who has a spotless driving record but has nonetheless had his keys taken away.

Etters is editor of the FAMUan, the student newspaper at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, the state’s capital.

If you’ve heard of FAMU before, it’s probably because of its marching band, which went from famous – playing Super Bowl halftimes – to infamous when a drum major named Robert Champion was beaten to death on the band bus after a FAMU football game in November 2011.

The result has been hazing investigations, criminal charges, and civil lawsuits. Understandably, FAMU administrators are still freaked out. So they weren’t happy when this happened, as reported by the local newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat

A Dec. 2, 2011, article in the student newspaper incorrectly stated senior Keon Hollis was one of four drum majors suspended in connection with Champion’s death. Three days later, The FAMUan posted a revised article on its website omitting Hollis’ name and noting the fourth suspended student could not be identified. On Feb. 14, 2012, The FAMUan published a correction, but the lawsuit noted it failed to say Hollis had nothing to do with Champion’s death or the crime of hazing.

Guilt by association

Hollis filed a libel suit on Dec. 3 against both the newspaper and the university. Does he have a case? Maybe, says Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center outside Washington, D.C…

Accusing someone of wrongdoing without factual basis is certainly the textbook example of defamation. If Hollis can demonstrate that he was uninvolved in the hazing, then a story reporting that he was suspended in connection with the beating certainly might be defamatory, although he would still have to prove not only that the article was false but that it was prepared with some degree of carelessness. 

Weird thing is, Etters had nothing to do with any of this. He was just a staff writer at the time. In fact, he says all but two of his current staff weren’t even working at the FAMUan when the potentially libelous story was written.

Yet last Tuesday, FAMU j-school dean Ann Kimbrough shut down the paper for a month of unspecified – and unpaid – training. Her only comment was this vague email…

We are working to balance students’ rights to a free press through this process while also ensuring that The FAMUan has the proper support from the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication as it serves as a training unit for up and coming journalists.

No, you’re out of order

That has LoMonte, a usually calm attorney, spewing passionately…

Putting a newspaper on hiatus because of one erroneous story is a case of overkill that could not possibly hold up if challenged under the First Amendment. A prior restraint on publishing is considered the most noxious form of censorship, and nothing short of giving away military invasion plans has been found constitutionally adequate to justify it.

When you freeze the distribution of a newspaper, you’re depriving the campus audience of information that couldn’t conceivably be libelous – everything from roommate ads to concert listings to sports scores.

It’s the classic case of burning down the village to save it. It’s entirely understandable that the university wants to respond if, in fact, they’ve concluded that a story contained a factual error. But removing all of the editors and stopping them from publishing seems needlessly punitive – particularly when the writer who made the mistake no longer works there.

Even worse, LoMonte says, “It’s very doubtful that the dean of the college even has the supervisory authority to shut down a student organization for some quasi-punitive reason. Student organizations don’t ‘belong’ to the dean – they belong to the student members.”

LoMonte concludes…

Even leaving First Amendment issues aside, there’s a foundational labor-law issue with making people work for no pay. The editors went through a selection process and agreed to take on the work of producing news – and are being held out of work without pay for some nebulous training that apparently is mandatory. You can’t hire someone for a paying position and then unilaterally change the terms so that a month’s worth of unpaid training becomes a prerequisite. If the college claims that it can give orders that these students must obey like they’re employees, then the college needs to compensate them like employees.

Applying pressure

When I spoke with Etters over the weekend, he had no clue what happens next. He’s filling out yet another application for editor – which he did just a few weeks ago. He seemed a little beat up and beaten down.

Etters welcomes more training – “It will help show the public we are taking strides to be a more solid publication,” he told the local paper – but he doesn’t understand why it feels like punishment.

What happens next? I don’t know. Etters and his staff are discussing their options, and I’ve asked Region 3 assistant director Lindsey Cook to investigate.

More to come…

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  • Danny Bailey

    It’s funny, I’ve gotten zero replies to my law review article that shows faculty and staff CAN and often DO limit public space at universities from the media. Y’all sure told me….exactly what I expected to hear.

  • AndrewMSeaman

    I’m not sure what you mean. Faculty and staff can’t stop people from reporting or protesting on campus. It’s public land. No one can stop people from exercising their First Amendment rights.

  • Danny Bailey
  • AndrewMSeaman


    “However, some public property, even though it is open only for limited purposes, can take on the attributes of a public forum discussed above. A classic example of this type of property is public schools and universities. Although public school and university buildings are not wholly open to the public, some parts of a campus may be considered a public forum. If a school’s large open quad is accessed from public sidewalks and streets and freely used by the general public with no apparent objection from the school administration, then the quad may be considered “dedicated” to public use, and therefore more like the traditional public forums of the public park and sidewalk. Additionally, if the school opens certain of its rooms for non-school meetings that are open to the public, those rooms, during those times, will be treated as public forums.”

    They had been letting people protest for a month or so, which sets precedent. You can’t pick and choose freedoms from the First Amendment to allow.

  • Chuck Lenatti

    Where in the First Amendment does it say that faculty or staff get to restrict the press’s freedom of speech?

  • Chuck Lenatti

    People who rely on First Amendment freedoms need to tread very lightly on restricting the freedom of speech of others. For example, if a police officer pulls over someone for a minor traffic violation or a broken headlight and then summarily begins beating and shooting them, that officer can tell a person filming them that they are invading the officer’s personal private space and prevent them from filming the assault. Either everyone has freedom of speech or no one does. I suggest you educate yourself about the First Amendment of the Constitution

  • Brian Trosko

    If she was acting in her official capacity as staff of a public university in order to eject a journalist from a public event, then the university was acting in violation of the journalist’s first amendment rights and should be prepared to deal with a civil rights lawsuit.

  • Dino

    Here’s a reply, Danny. Your link points to “school administrators” being able to restrict access. Melissa Click is faculty, not an administrator. She had no right try to restrict access. Especially the way she did, by asking for “muscle” to forcibly remove the media. You are wrong on this, and the school’s administration took appropriate action against her.

  • Jay DeFee

    Sad that we are even discussing this mess. Much to-do about nothing. The blacks of yesteryear suffered severe discrimination.to the point of lose of life. Now they want no name calling/

  • Steve Weinstein

    A journalist is anyone who interviews a subject and writes a news feature based on it. Ergo, Sean Penn is a journalist — at least until there are licensing bureaus to rule on who qualifies, like beauticians or radiologists. And I am glad that will not be happening.

  • jeffschult

    Nonsense. And a smug cheap shot. And it wouldn’t have killed you to add that HST is “late” and to maybe think up some of your own words rather than take his out of context.

    It was an *interview*. If Joaquín Guzmán Loera had written the piece himself and mailed it in, any news organization would have taken it and reported it and published a transcript. (After confirming the source.) It was news. It had nothing to do with RS’s sins of the past, either.

  • John Willkie

    I agree entirely with your first sentence, Mr. Weinstein. A journalist is someone who commits acts of journalism. But, was this a “news feature?” Answering a few simple questions might help you think more clearly. Did this “item” establish Sean Penn’s ability to tell a minimally balanced story? In your life, have you ever before this week heard of an item (let alone one of 10,000 words) where the subject was granted (by the publisher and writer) a veto over any word in the article, have you ever heard of such an article being called “journalism?”

    You are by omission giving weight to the bad notion that journalists should be licensed. As for me, I saw the item, saw the disclaimer and went no further, because it was marketing and public relations. Note: we now know that Sean Penn decided it would be too difficult to do a movie on this subject and instead decided to write a PR piece that Rolling Stone, a la Ms. Erdely, would publish.


  • Idi_Amen

    Aw come on. Sour grapes. Any journalist, any publication would have jumped at the opportunity had it come their way, approval condition attached or not. RS had the option of not publishing had Guzman Loera made any changes they did not like. The ethics in question also pale in comparison to the tons of crap passing as journalism on social media these days.

  • Sylv Taylor

    Even if it’s sour grapes, the point is valid.

  • Jeff Bowles

    “Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable.”

    Nope. Misrepresentation is always bad, in every way, and if there were edit/review offered to the subject and undisclosed to the reader, it would be awful.

    But a disclosure that tells you that it had this approval. Certainly it impugns the integrity of the content, but lets the reader decide what sort of piece they’re reading.

  • Jennifer Stewart

    The article in Rolling Stone struck me as a 2nd rate headline-grabber masquerading as important journalism. Penn’s disclaimer, that he just presented what he saw without judgment, leaving the reader to form his own conclusions, was fatuous. He didn’t do that at all.

    He did articulate everything that’s anti-social, criminal and repulsive about Guzman et al and followed that up with the same about the market for drugs. An unbiased assessment of everybody’s responsibility would have been excellent because it isn’t a simple issue but this wasn’t that. Penn pretty much shoved all responsibility onto the shoulders of the users and the destination countries’ inability/reluctance to deal head on with the problem.

    That’s tantamount to saying a rapist isn’t guilty because society doesn’t protect women effectively and because women let themselves be raped. The reality is that predators seek out the vulnerable and the unprotected.

    Which is what Guzman does with his global drug manufacture and sales industry. Penn should have made that point but he didn’t. Worse, his questions virtually solicited answers that could—and did—paint this sociopath as a simple, even kind-hearted family man who doesn’t mean any harm to anybody.

    A good journalist with real dedication to exposing truth would have asked far more penetrating questions. Why didn’t Penn do that? He’s very articulate and an outspoken activist who clearly does understand the role and accountability of the predator. He’s usually not scared of shoving truth in people’s faces. I’m not surprised that he didn’t blatantly tell the truth here. I am surprised that he [and Rolling Stone] settled for pretending to do so and expect us not to notice.

    The idea that the world’s most powerful drug lord is simple-minded is ludicrous and the notion that he wouldn’t control every word of an article about himself when he was on the run is equally so. If he didn’t edit his answers it was because he didn’t have to.

    I compare this variety of ‘exposing truth’ to that of the journalists fighting and exposing Michael Schroeder and Sheldon Adelson’s attempts (some successful; some fortunately not—see Steve Majerus-Collins’ Facebook page for that ongoing story) to pervert journalistic integrity. That’s real journalism. This is just a headline grabber with barely any substance to merit the huge attention it’s receiving.

  • rg

    Why haven’t we been hearing from you over the very same kind of collusion between all the establishment media whores and the establishment political whores who have been gutting the constitution all these recent years…where’s all your outrage for the truly bad actors in this world?

  • rg

    Mr. Seaman doth protest too much.

  • tomwest

    “if there were edit/review offered to the subject and undisclosed to the reader, it would be awful”.
    Really? So, you write a story about me. I see it before hand, and point out it contains some factual errors. You agree, fix the errors, and never mention this in the article. How does that impugn anything?

  • Jeff Bowles

    Checking veracity of quotes is sort of standard; allowing rewriting or copy-editing is something you’d disclose.

  • So how does this condemnation of Rolling Stone dovetail with SPJ previously arguing that PPR is okay? http://www.spj.org/ecs6.asp

    “It used to be that a reporter would absolutely NEVER let a source check out a story before it appeared. But there has been growing acceptance of the idea that it’s more important to be accurate than to be independent.”

    As a journalist, I don’t favor PPR. I am merely pointing out that SPJ seems to think PPR is okay for the Washington Post but not Rolling Stone. And the more important issue here is the threat of government or law enforcement agencies using the critique of Penn and RS to ‘investigate’ them for doing the interview. That’s what should be condemned.

  • tomwest

    “We must solumnly decalre that the subject of this piece pointed out his birthday was 1/2/1970, not 2/1/1970. This fulfils our ethical obligations”.
    … I think not, somehow.

    You seem to be conflating “reviewing” and “rewriting”. There is generally no harm in letting a subject review a piece about them, and have a chance to comment – even (especially!) if the article alleges something particularly bad. That doesn’t mean the writer/editor is obliged to rewrite anything.

  • rg

    Freedom? Basically, we’re free to not break any laws. Public demonstrations are shut down as soon as they appear. Are you free to be a communist? Are you free to smoke marijuana? Many years ago people were burned alive for disagreeing with church doctrine. Things are better now, burning at the stake has taken a backseat to mass incarceration. We are free to be jailed for non-violent drug use. Free to eat ourselves into disease overburdening the medical system. Free to surf all the porn on the internet but imprisoned if we look behind the NSA curtains. Free to watch all the sports we can stay awake for but don’t ask where all the money went for the military or the war. Free to go bankrupt for getting sick and going to the hospital. Free to have your job replaced by a robot or someone living in such squalor a dollar a day is like winning the lottery. Free to trust corrupt politicians and shiny, primping pundits. American exceptionalism right? Greatest country in the world…that ain’t saying much.

  • The Truth Hurts

    With the daily ethics violations committed by people who were actually trained to be journalists, it does seem strange that all of a sudden members of the media want to hash out what’s acceptable in reporting the news or conducting interviews.

  • rg

    Cheer up? Why don’t we just emblazon the headline “Might Is Right” across the front pages of all the papers in this country? Of the world? Shock and awe the world into submission and create a massive filter to scan the world for dissent? That would be untoward. Let’s just take the world as the world and go along to get along. The alternative is marginalization, being called ridiculous and irrational. This country was founded on slavery and genocide. Why should anyone expect a more rational approach.

  • Michael Moore

    ANYONE else would’ve done the exact same thing to get an exclusive from El Chapo. Anyone who says otherwise is a fucking liar. And considering all the off the record, side deals, efforts to control that are already considered acceptable practice in press today, there is literally NO ONE who can cast stones at Rolling Stone on this story. Much like how Milli Vanilli only got the main furor from a hypocritical music business (well into lip-syncing, double tracking, replacing vocals and so on) who protested too much, when the general public couldn’t care less who actually sang the damn songs.
    Also, the Washington Post and many various other media outlets regularly did deals like RS did with Jackie in the UVA case. Obviously, they didn’t make the jump to blind faith that RS, Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Will Dana did and let the subject completely control everything, but they made similar deals to not give full names and only give the allegd victim’s side of the story in the very first article, which would be the lead-in to follow up stories later, with more interviews down the pike. Sadly, RS didn’t plan like that, which was a huge mistake, and was indeed a massive failure in journalism. But it’s not just RS that needs to change. The Washington Post needs to change. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, FOX “News”, MSNBC, CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, and all of them need to change. And they can’t attack Rolling Stone for the very same sins they themselves commit.
    (P.S. I’m NOT the director)

  • Alex Veeneman

    I joined SPJ in 2014 — albeit rather late in my university career. The work I’ve been able to do has allowed me to network, as well as focus on a niche subject and to build my own craft. I believe that education is at the heart of all good journalism, and the fact that SPJ promotes that aligns with my current work and what I hope to do in the future.

  • Lynn Walsh

    I joined SPJ because it provides me with tools and resources to produce ethical news content. There are other journalist organizations out there, some of which I am a member, but for me, SPJ provides the best and most wide ranging ethical and FOI advice. Also, the network of professionals that are fighting for the same thing and can help you gain access to information is invaluable. – Lynn Walsh

  • Mark Scarp

    I came to stay with SPJ for many of the benefits Lynn cited, but my original decision to join had nothing to do with tools and resources. A colleague at my newspaper was a member of the local chapter board, and he asked me to come to a meeting. I respected him, so I went. Upon arriving, I enjoyed getting to know other journalists whose perspectives were beyond those I had learned from those in my own newsroom. I was put to work on the chapter newsletter and suddenly found myself as one of the chapter vice presidents. My respected colleague? It was his last meeting; he never returned, although he went on to a great career as a municipal PIO. He’s still a good friend. We laugh at that story today, but he’s glad I went on in SPJ even though he did not. It was so good to see SPJ’s leadership visit my hometown of Scottsdale, and I’m sure the discussions here were productive.


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