Losing his faculties

This older gentleman? A teenager is wiser than he is.

Ed Meadows is president of Pensacola State College in the Florida Panhandle. He made the most headlines of his long career just last week, when he told the 18-year-old Spenser Garber, co-editor of the PSC student newspaper, three silly things…

1. Garber shouldn’t cover the school’s contract negotiations with faculty. That will only “distract students from their studies.”

2. If faculty leaders update Garber on their negotiations, everyone is violating the law. Besides, Meadows said, “What benefit would it be for students to know?”

3. It’s impossible for Garber to write a balanced story on faculty negotiations – because Meadows refuses to speak to the newspaper. “Good journalism requires two sides to every story and, unfortunately, I can’t give you the other side,” Meadows says. Therefore, nothing should be written at all.

The story quickly bled beyond the Panhandle’s borders.

It traveled at the speed of sound from a higher-education website (Gag Order in Sunshine State) to a campus watchdog group (Fla. college censors student reporters, tells them to stick to ‘basketball games’) to a student legal center (Fla. community college president discredits student newspaper’s reporting, gags faculty) to a student rights group (Pensacola State Official Offers Embarrassingly Bad Justifications for Censorship of Student Media).

But Garber has grown increasingly uncomfortable with the coverage’s hyperbole, which peaked when Gawker got involved (Florida College President Is Either a Thug or a Moron).

When I spoke with Garber last week, two things impressed me…

1. He’s not easily intimidated. At 18, he’s more fearless than many older college journalists I’ve known. In (too) many cases, students crumple at the first sign of conflict, trading defense of the First Amendment for some vague sense of self-preservation – which, of course, is exactly the opposite way to achieve that goal. So Garber says he’ll keep covering the stories his readers want to know about.

2. He’s not easily excitable. Garber is adamant that he’s not out for blood. He doesn’t want Meadows fired over this. Meadows is wrong, he says, but no one has threatened to shut down the paper or prevent him from writing what he wants. Garber struck me as the most mature person in this dust-up: He’s disappointed in Meadows but not angry at him, and he’s calmly trying to add some nuance in an echo chamber of online hyperbole.

I asked Garber, What would you want to tell journalists about what’s happened? Below is his open letter he wrote over the weekend.

Journalists of the United States…

The past few weeks have been stressful to say the least. By trying to do my job as a journalist, national news sites like Gawker and Inside Higher Ed have picked up a story that isn’t really true.

On October 31st, a letter was sent to the Faculty Association of Pensacola State College. That letter was CC’d to the Corsair in an e-mail. In this e-mail, sent by lawyer Mike Mattimore, two laws were outlined stating that no college organization shall exploit students for personal gain. One specific law, Florida Statute Section 447.501(2)(f), had been ruled unconstitutional a while back.

Here’s where the misunderstanding started. I kept trying to tell the administration that the original information I obtained about a PSCFA straw poll was not from a PSCFA member. It wasn’t even a person that works at the college. They insisted that I had to get the information from a PSCFA member, even if it didn’t come from one that told me (these meetings are open meetings, anyone could have seen the straw poll vote).

After the letter was sent, things got blown out of proportion fairly quickly. Some people interpreted the letter as a restriction of the Corsair’s freedom of the press. That isn’t true. The letter was outlining the legality of the PSCFA talking to the paper, which puts the fault on the PSCFA, not the Corsair. Since the college’s realization of the unconstitutionality of Florida Statute Section 447.501(2)(f), they have changed their stance on the PSCFA’s ability to talk to the Corsair.

It is unnecessary to interview President Meadows about the “gag order” sent to the PSCFA, as it is a moot point. It is unnecessary to interview me about the Corsair’s restriction of freedom of the press, as it is nonexistent. There is no real news in a story about the faculty and administration negotiating a contract. If you want an update on the story, there will be a Board of Trustees meeting on November 18. Afterwards, there will most likely be a story uploaded to the Corsair’s web site.

Best Wishes,

Spenser Garber
Co-Editor at Pensacola State College

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn

© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ