The outlaw editor

Who doesn’t like Pye?

Apparently, Florida Atlantic University doesn’t.

In April, senior Joe Pye was elected editor of FAU’s student newspaper, cleverly called the University Press. He was supposed to start his new job this week. But FAU won’t let him. Why? An administrator says he’s “not tact.”

FAU’s reasons are as weak as its grammar, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, you need to know three amusing things…

  • Right now, Pye is acting editor. As in, he’s acting as editor. As in, he’s pretending. Pye is listed as editor on the University Press website. He’s running the newsroom, and the staff considers him the boss even if FAU doesn’t.
  • Two lawyers think this is really weird. SPJ has hired one of them to sue FAU.
  • Meanwhile, we’re selling T-shirts. Lawsuits are boring and take time. Shirts are fun and on sale now. Proceeds go to SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund.

Get a piece of Pye.

What journalist can pass up a pun? Buy a shirt here. It won’t solve Pye’s problem, but you’ll look sharp while supporting him.

Pye himself sees the humor in his banishment.


He was unanimously elected by FAU’s Student Media Advisory Board and unanimously won a staff vote. But FAU weirdly gives its Student Government the power to approve the editor who covers Student Government.

News flash! SG leaders torpedoed Pye when they asked him about his goals as editor, and he replied, “Keep watch over all you guys.” An administrator defended SG by saying Joe was “not tact in his responses.” (Check out the sordid details and silly grammar here.)


Administrators reassured Pye he could appeal – to Student Government. Says Pye: “I felt like the only sane person in the room, asking why would I file an appeal to the same people who shot me down.”


Being sane, Pye appealed. It took more than a month to finally (and inevitably) be denied. The wheels of justice grind slowly but exceedingly absurd.


The newspaper’s faculty adviser suggested Pye “have a little more patience” before talking to a lawyer because, “There remains the risk that a legal battle could spur SG to cut all of its funding to the student paper.”

Of course, it’s against the law for a public university to retaliate like that. So FAU is basically urging Pye not to fight for his rights because it might violate even more rights.

Speaking of attorneys…

FAU is the Wild West of conflict of interest.

Frank LoMonte has been a national media attorney for a decade, and he can’t recall another public university that lets Student Government decide who’s the editor.

“Just about every college in America delegates the task of hiring editors to a publications board of knowledgeable stakeholders with independence from the political process,” says LoMonte, who’s executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, DC.

“What’s happening with Joe Pye is the object lesson in why we don’t let government officials decide who can and can’t be in charge of covering them – because they’ll vote against the people who present a threat of covering them aggressively,” LoMonte says. “Student governments should have zero involvement in selecting editors of newspapers, period, end of conversation.”

Alas, it’s not the end of the conversation. But it might be the beginning of a lawsuit.

Frontier justice?

Justin Hemlepp looks too young to be an attorney – he turns 37 on Monday – but he has lots of experience suing Florida universities. And lots of success.

Hemlepp has sued the University of Central Florida three times on behalf of its student newspaper. He’s won each time. Last year, a judge ordered UCF pay his legal fees. UCF appealed, he won again, and he was awarded legal fees again.

SPJ has hired Hemlepp to represent Pye. He’ll submit an official letter to FAU on his birthday, and FAU’s response will determine what happens next. But Hemlepp thinks there’s a solid case.

“I know of no other university where the Student Government gets to choose the journalists that cover it,” Hemlepp says. “The foxes truly are guarding the hen house, and I’m certain Lenin and Kim Jong Un would be proud.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

If Pye isn’t the editor, who is? FAU says it’s Kerri-Marie Covington, the current managing editor.

Except she says it ain’t.

The 20-year-old Covington learned she was the new editor in a group email to the newspaper’s senior staff. FAU originally said its student media rules dictate the managing editor “serves as the Interim EIC until such time as the Student Media Advisory Board shall, by a majority vote, appoint a replacement for the remainder of the term.”

Except if you click the link, it doesn’t say that at all.

Instead, that edict is buried in a separate set of rules FAU never posted online. I had to request those rules, and I’ve posted them here.

Weirdly, these “Student Media Statutes” seem to date back to 2013, although none of the current newspaper staff has ever seen them, and there’s no record of who approved them. There are also many red lines and underlines, indicating changes that aren’t dated.

Making it even more confusing, Covington says, “No one from administration has reached out to me.” She doesn’t know how long she’s interim editor for, because the Student Media Advisory Board has no meetings scheduled.

So she has an announcement of her own…

“As of today, I’m refusing to be the interim editor-in-chief of the FAU University Press.”

Covington adds, “I’m not doing this out of spite. I’m not doing this out of disrespect. But if nothing changes now, it never will.”

At least one member of FAU’s Student Media Advisory Board agrees with her.

This board member is on board.

Dan Sweeney is a state politics reporter at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. From 2011-14, he was the full-time adviser for the University Press.

So when he proclaims “concerns,” he’s speaking as someone who’s worked in both pro and college journalism.

“The prevention of Joe Pye from getting his job as editor in chief violates not just his own constitutional rights, but potentially violates the rights of everyone around him,” says Sweeney, who was appointed to FAU’s Student Media Advisory Board just a few months ago.

Besides the “chilling effect on the free speech of students,” Sweeney says there’s an “educational issue.” It’s worth quoting him at length…

When a governmental entity prevents the editor-in-chief from assuming his duties, it strikes a near-fatal blow to the ability of the newspaper to train professional journalists. In the real world, journalists are by necessity forced into conflict with the subjects they cover – this is especially true in government coverage.

By demonstrating to students that government has such control over journalists, the university is providing budding journalists with exactly the wrong lesson – that they should be cowed before government, avoid conflict, and seek to mollify their critics in the power structure. That is literally the 180-degree opposite lesson these students should be taught.

Get Joe’s back by putting this on yours.

So if you’re amused, confused, and/or outraged by this twisted situation, maybe you’ll buy a shirt. It costs $15, and we’ll donate $3 of that to SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund, which pays attorneys to assist journalists.

(In case you’re wondering, the other $12 goes to the online company making the shirts. In other words, we’re not drinking it.)

If you order a T-shirt today, expect delivery before the end of July. It’s an open question which will arrive first: Your shirt, SPJ’s lawsuit, or FAU’s reinstatement of Joe Pye.

Full disclosure: I’ve advised the FAU student newspaper as a part-timer and volunteer since 1998. Over the years, this isn’t nearly the dumbest thing I’ve seen there. Or the funniest. This might be. Or this.

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.

7 Responses to “The outlaw editor”

  1. Brandon Ballenger Says:

    I’m sure SG will learn some sense — that’s part of why they’re in college — but FAU needs some new administrators and a smarter adviser.

  2. Emily Bloch Says:

    Well — this is disappointing but not surprising. FAU tries so hard to be a “traditional” university and then they make repeat blunders like this. My favorite part is that they could’ve quietly made things go away by accepting the appeal. But then again, when has FAU ever done things the easy way?

    The scariest part is the “legal advice” Joe’s getting from a faculty adviser saying “don’t talk to a lawyer, the school might retaliate?” A media ethics professor would shudder at that statement. So would a media law professor — but I just remembered, FAU’s version of that is a former PR specialist who (is a very nice guy, but) has absolutely no journalism or formal law experience.

    Yeah, I’m buying a shirt.

  3. Dori Zinn Says:

    I don’t know how many more times my alma mater will disappoint me, but I’ve lost track. Really glad all of us at SPJ are keeping an eye on FAU. Clearly they need the babysitting.

  4. Amanda Rabines Says:

    Not tact? Well that’s ambiguous.

  5. Karla Bowsher Says:

    This is bordering on fake news. You guys need to check your facts. There are plenty of places where the government meddles with the press — Venezuela, for example. And look at all the sunshine and rainbows they’ve got going on these days.

  6. Karla Bowsher Says:

    But in all serious, FAU’s ceaseless assault on the First Amendment
    is precisely why I and my now-spouse, a two-time alum, no longer donate to FAU’s alumni association. We cannot morally support even the indirect
    censorship for which Student Affairs and Student Government have made
    FAU infamous. So we sure won’t support it financially.

  7. Kathryn Quigley Says:

    This is ridiculous! I am the advisor of The Whit, thevstudent newspaper at Rowan University, a state school in NJ. It is the JOB of the editor to “keep watch over” SGA. And since when have newspaper editors been known for their “tact” anyway? Go Joe! Keep fighting.


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