Sometimes, the threats to media freedoms aren’t blatant and up front, but they’re no less dangerous.
They take the guise of regulation, behind-the-scenes intimidation, and in the latest case in our state, in a housekeeping directive by the administration of the University of Florida that the signature orange newspaper racks carrying The Independent Florida Alligator on campus be removed.
The Alligator’s dedicated racks, accented by blue-lettered adhesives with the newspaper’s name, have been as much a part of campus life in Gator Nation as the brick buildings.
The storied newspaper founded in 1906 and housed on and off campus through various incarnations became independent in 1973, after years of attempts by the UF administration to censor its content.
It is widely respected as a practicum for student journalists who cover UF life and the city of Gainesville, and often wins top national awards.
It is inconceivable that a university that houses one of the top journalism programs in the nation would want to curtail students’ easy access to the student-run newspaper.
But after a century of the paper’s circulating freely on campus — the last 30 years in the distinctive orange racks — the administration now finds the racks aesthetically offensive and unsafe, and has demanded The Alligator remove them by Aug. 15.
“The racks are our branding,” says Ed Barber, president emeritus of the newspaper and executive director of the Alligator Alumni Association. “We have to grab people’s attention and say, ‘Here we are.’ ”
The laughable range of reasons cited for their removal — that students might trip over them (not even in my time at UF, when the legal drinking age was 18 and alcohol was widely consumed on campus, was this an issue) and that they could become projectiles in a storm (as if there haven’t been storms before in Florida the past three decades and no chains strong enough at Home Depot to secure racks) — are suspect.
As is the proposed alternative: UF wants to replace the current visible racks with bland, modular black racks for which the university would charge a fee to The Alligator and other publications that would rotate using them.
What is really behind this attempt to undermine the student newspaper and tax what is essentially a public service?
Is it a crass attempt to collect more fees, or something larger and more sinister and apt to the times?
Those of us familiar with the shenanigans of governance and campus affairs (I wrote for the Alligator during the late ’70s) know that history indicates that the real cause for annoyance to the powers that be is student-journalist scrutiny.
This isn’t a safety issue, and certainly UF’s orange-and-blue colors aren’t suddenly out of fashion in campus decor.
It’s at best a display of insensitivity to the value of a newspaper that shouldn’t be treated like a giveaway shopper.
Special interests would like nothing more than to weaken the media.
But a university’s administration and board of trustees should take positions that strengthen democracy, not erode it, even if it’s only by a count of 19 orange newspaper racks.