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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