Within days of launching Our Fight for Free Speech — after our reporters were boxed into a small area which we are calling UCF’s “Free Press Zone” — KnightNews.com has attracted attention of several national First Amendment groups.
The Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, sent Univesity of Central Florida President John Hitt this letter yesterday, calling on him not to interfere with our First Amendment rights during our coverage of the 2010 SGA presidential election.
The Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, Adam Kissel, read our earlier reports (Monday’s and Wednesday’s) about how KnightNews.com was corralled into the “Free Press Zone,” at a time when this photo evidence shows two journalists from another campus newspaper, the Central Florida Future, were not.
“If these reports are correct, UCF is violating the First Amendment right to freedom of the press and is discriminating against one media source in particular,” Kissel wrote in his letter to Hitt, which was also copied to: Scott Cole, Vice President and General Counsel at UCF; Richard Beary, UCF’s Chief of Police; SGA President Brian Peterson; Patricia MacKown, who oversees UCF’s Office of Student Conduct and Vikki Shirley, General Counsel, Florida Board of Governors.
“UCF, a public institution bound by the U.S. Constitution, must refrain from interfering with the First Amendment rights of its students,” Kissel continued.
“Due to the urgency of this matter, we request that you respond immediately by refraining from taking unconstitutional action against KnightNews.com today or in the future.”
KnightNews.com also has contacted the ACLU regarding Our Fight for Free Speech, which is currently reviewing the situation and UCF’s restrictions on the First Amendment.
In addition, a local private attorney, Benjamin Mayer, stood with KnightNews.com reporters as they crossed the line they were ordered to stay behind on Monday, during the first day of the three-day SGA Presidential Elections — the winner of which sits on UCF’s Board of Trustees and helps shape tailgating policies, currently under fire for allowing wealthy alumni to start at 8 a.m., but which ban students from setting up before noon, even if they aren’t drinking.
After publishing a story about being ordered into the “Free Press Zone” Monday — and never hearing back after e-mailing university leaders politely asking for a resolution — KnightNews.com published this letter to its readers Wednesday morning announcing its reporters would risk arrest by walking out of the zone at 5 p.m. to cover the announcement of the SGA Presidential Election results.
After that letter was published Wednesday morning — and on the same day FIRE sent its letter to President Hitt — UCF Assistant Vice President of News and Information Grant Heston responded to the e-mail we sent him two days earlier at about 2 p.m. saying, “Please give me a call so we can discuss your post.”
KnightNews.com did not see this e-mail before our 5 p.m. deadline, however, with attorney Benjamin Mayer by their side, and the letter from FIRE sent to key university and state leaders, KnightNews.com reporters walked outside of the box and provided this coverage of the SGA Election results — without being arrested.
As of 1:30 p.m. Thursday, KnightNews.com still has not been assured its reporters can gather news outside of the “Free Press Zone.”
One of our readers who e-mailed us regarding Our Fight for Free Speech, shared a link to this policy UCF apparently uses to apply the First Amendment.
In the letter from FIRE — which has represented the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, in its free speech fight against UCF in the past — it states UCF “appears to have revised its ‘free speech zone’ policy as of January 15, 2010.”
KnightNews.com was not made aware of any changes to the policy by UCF through a press release, and we are now working to find out what changes were made.
In the policy, it specifically exempts “Grounds associated with the Burnett House,” which serves as UCF President John Hitt’s estate on campus, from the policy allowing “University organizations and University-related organizations [to] organize, conduct, or participate in demonstrations and other exercises of free speech and assembly on University grounds.”
KnightNews.com is working to find out if this restriction is new, and whether that means the sidewalks outside of Hitt’s home are off-limits to free speech.
KnightNews.com has also been contacted by a reporter with the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy group for student free-press rights which operates near our nation’s captial, which is researching the Our Fight for Free Speech relating to SGA election coverage.
As KnightNews.com reporters catch up on classwork which was put off during both the election coverage, and our unexpected Fight for Free Speech, we will work with our new partners to try and communicate with and resolve our differences with the university, so the First Amendment can be fairly applied to all.
Photo evidence of Central Florida Future not being harassed for being outside of the “Free Press Zone” on NEXT PAGE: