Thank you everyone who joined us for our first webinar, The Alligator Stands Tall, as part of a larger series Turning the Page: Defining Moments in The Alligator’s History.
This first episode in this series was born from comments after Matthew Boedy’s post The Day The Alligator Made Me Realize My Calling: Defending the Public Good. Former Editor-in-Chief Trey Csar wondered if we might be able to reconvene the students from the 2001 newsroom who fought the Family Protection Act with support from The Alligator leadership and under the legal counsel of Thomas Julin, First Amendment attorney and former editor himself.
In 2001, after the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500, Jeb Bush signed the Family Protection Act, a law limiting public access to photos, video, or audio recording of an autopsy unless one can show good cause or get the family’s consent. The law was applied retroactively. The Alligator and other news organizations sued for access, arguing the law as written violated the First Amendment. In 2001, the Society of Professional Journalists recognized The Alligator with its annual First Amendment Award for the paper’s legal battle against the Family Protection Act.
Hear about the events that inspired the newsroom to challenge the law and argue its constitutionality, firsthand accounts of threats and advertising boycotts and what it was like for three 20-something journalists to continue to fight even after other news organizations backed down.
Ed Barber, chairman and president, Alligator Alumni Association; president emeritus, Campus Communications, Inc.
Matthew Boedy, Ph.D., assistant professor of Rhetoric and Composition, University of North Georgia; former chief news editor
Trey Csar, president, Jacksonville Public Education Fund; former editor-in-chief
Jason Rashad Brown, former editor-in-chief
Thomas Julin, first amendment attorney; former editor-in-chief
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: Good afternoon everyone, my name is Stephanie Gocklin, and I worked at The Alligator from 2002 to 2013 in the Production Department. On behalf of the Alligator Alumni Association, I would like to welcome you all to today’s webinar.
As many of us know, major commercial newspapers are moving to smaller offices in pursuit of lowered costs and improved revenue models, and The Alligator is no different.
Last summer, The Alligator made a strategic move from its offices on University Avenue to the ground floor of the Gainesville Sun building, where they were able to eliminate building maintenance costs and decrease office overhead. The building sale was a sigh of relief for many alum and current staffers.
Nearly a year ago, the announcement of this move turned into a digital reunion of Alligator alumni and friends of The Alligator. Last summer, the Alligator Alumni Association relaunched its efforts to build a network of past, present and future staffers.
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: Since 1906, The Alligator has served the University of Florida, Gainesville and outlying areas in Alachua County. And in The Alligator‘s most defining historic moment, February 1, 1973, the paper became independent from UF.
Without operating support from the university, The Independent Florida Alligator sustained itself for 44 years on advertising revenue to continue delivering breaking news, investigative reporting and award-winning in-depth journalism. All while defending First Amendment Rights for Florida journalists.
It’s no secret that delivering the news today comes at a cost. The Independent Florida Alligator faces financial uncertainty. Management is making serious changes to reduce deficits — the building sale is one of them — and also ensure that the paper’s future as a beacon of journalistic excellence continues to exist, but like newspapers nationwide, The Alligator needs the public’s support.
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: As the paper identifies new ways to support the next generation of journalists, advertising executives, graphic artists and media-related professionals, the Alumni Association is working directly with Campus Communications to make it easier than ever for you to support these efforts too. In the next few weeks, we’ll be releasing new ways you can support The Alligator through donations, fundraising and volunteering. Or if you just can’t wait, you can contact General Manager Trish Carey directly at [email protected] to make a donation today.
While we’re preparing for The Alligator‘s future, the Alligator Alumni Association is also collecting stories and oral histories of the paper’s acclaimed past. Today we’re going to look back at one of these defining moments in The Alligator‘s history as a defender of public information: its controversial decision to challenge the Family Protection Act after the death of Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500.
On today’s call we have former Editors-in-Chief Jason Rashad Brown, Trey Csar and Thomas Julin, alongside former Chief News Editor Matthew Boedy and Ed Barber, who needs no introduction, but you know him as president emeritus of Campus Communications and chairman and president of the Alligator Alumni Association.
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: You can use the chat box to ask questions, which we will answer during our Q&A portion of the webinar after we hear from our speakers.
Today’s first speaker is Tom Julin, former editor of The Alligator and First Amendment attorney, who represented the newspaper at every court level all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the challenge against the Family Protection Act.
TOM JULIN: Stephanie, thank you very much for the introduction and for what you’re doing for the Alligator Alumni Association. And thank you for featuring one of my greatest losses of all time.
The Alligator was born of litigation with Ron Sachs originally being arrested for having published material that was prohibited by state law. He was successful in overturning that law. There’s a one-word opinion in the Florida Supreme Court reports that says “Affirmed,” which affirms the lower court decision that declared the state law prohibiting the publication of abortion referral clinics’ addresses – it was declared unconstitutional and Ron was successful in upholding that in the Florida Supreme Court.
So that was the birth of The Alligator – The Independent Florida Alligator. And the Earnhardt case actually came after a long series of other cases. There’s been, by my count, 12 different lawsuits that The Alligator has been involved with. It has instigated almost all of the cases; it’s been the moving party that was challenging something from the closure of the student honor court to the theft of its newspapers to the Sunshine Law application to the imposition of the sales tax on The Alligator. There’s been case after case after case.
TOM JULIN: The Earnhardt case is, by my count, the 11th in the series of lawsuits. It was odd that The Alligator even got involved in this case that involved the death of Dale Earnhardt in the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. He died instantaneously upon impacting the wall. The Alligator was not really all that involved with the matter, in covering the Daytona 500. Other media were. Particularly the Orlando Sentinel had done a series of reports prior to the race focused on the fact that other racecar circuits – other than NASCAR, the sponsor of the Daytona 500 – required their drivers to have head and neck restraint devices. These had proven that they stopped – prevented drivers from being killed when they had head-on collisions. The Sentinel practically predicted that NASCAR would have one of these problems if they didn’t require it. They didn’t require it because their drivers said they felt that they were too constrained, they were more macho than drivers on other racecar circuits, so the race went forward and Earnhardt was killed.
The media swarmed on this. And really the Orlando Sentinel was in the lead, saying “Oh my gosh, this is exactly what we said was going to happen.” Very quickly thereafter Teresa Earnhardt, Dale’s wife, sued to stop the release of any records, particularly the photographs of Dale’s autopsy, which was thought to be able to show and prove that what The Sentinel was saying was right. All the media that were reporting about this were vilified. There was an effort to bring as many media into the matter – into the dispute to get those records, the autopsy photographs – so that we would all stand together as one.
TOM JULIN: The Alligator was asked to file an amicus brief in support of what other media were saying. I remember Ed Barber, perhaps it was Trey (Csar), that called me and said would I file an amicus brief. I thought “OK, this will be a very simple, short thing. We’ll just say we agree that the records should be released.’” At the time, the public records law required the release of these records.
So we filed that brief, and then something strange happened. All the rest of the media entered into a deal. The deal was that the records would be sealed forever. No one would see them, and an expert would look at them and tell the media what these records showed. All of the media agreed to that deal with the exception of The Independent Florida Alligator, which said to the judge “We’re going to fight this. We’re not going to accept this deal.” And that’s how the matter got going. That’s why The Alligator took the lead for all the media in challenging the withholding those autopsy records.
TOM JULIN: Teresa got an injunction that required the medical examiner to withhold the records. The legislature was just starting its session, and it passed as its first bill that year a law that changed the public records law. Jeb Bush signed that as the governor. I think it was a unanimous legislature passing that, you had the governor signing it. That’s what gave us a little bit of a tough case, but we soldiered on and had an entire trial. I’m going to leave it to Trey and the others to tell what happened in that trial and all of the things that happened over the course of it and the aftermath of it. But that gives you a picture of the odds we were up against. It was really The Alligator against the world in the very famous Dale Earnhardt case.
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: Great, thanks Tom for that background information. We also have on today’s call Jason Brown who was editor of The Alligator at the time of the Family Protection Act and making this decision. Jason, can you tell us a little bit about the story of how The Alligator got involved and what motivated you and Trey to get involved in this fight?
JASON BROWN: Well the way that it started, the way that I first heard about it was from my mother. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First of all like Tom said, I was kind of watching the Daytona 500 out of the corner of my eye that Sunday. We were putting a paper out for Monday. I saw what happened. I knew about the Sentinel’s coverage previous to that about the head and neck restrictions. I was like, “Huh, that’s really weird and kind of ironic.” It was sad that he passed away. I kept moving on because we had a paper to put out.
Then a few weeks later it was spring break. I was in the Keys, and my mother called me and said that Ed Barber had called her trying to reach me. He called and asked me if I knew what the Sentinel was doing I said yes. He said, “Would you like to get involved?” I said, “I like a good First Amendment Fight as much as the next guy. Sure, let’s go.” Not knowing it was going to turn into what it eventually turned into to. I just thought we were filing a brief like Tom said, with the rest of the newspapers in the state. When they all bailed, we all sat down and said, “What do we do now?” I didn’t want to give up. Neither did anyone else, I don’t think.
JASON BROWN: So we kept going forward.
TREY CSAR: We were all (inaudible) for a fight I think.
JASON BROWN: Absolutely. 100%.
ED BARBER: You might mention, Jason, the comments we started getting from the public and the threats.
JASON BROWN: Yes comments from the public. Trey, we got death threats and hate mail pretty much every day, correct?
TREY CSAR: Comments puts it nicely. There were a lot of folks not happy. And I think what was complicated about it, was this guy who … how would you describe Michael Uribe, Jason?
JASON BROWN: Website owner. That’s a good way to put it. He was a website owner who was famous at the time for plastering his website with autopsy photos. He was a sensationalist. And everyone equated anyone else who was involved with this case with him. Which we obviously weren’t, but in the public’s eyes we were as bad as he was. As Trey said, we got horrible, horrible emails, we got death threats. We all personally got death threats. I was never really worried. Death threats didn’t scare me, because people who send death threats via email don’t really mean it. I wasn’t worried, but it was draining, ya know? You’re trying to do what you think is right, and from all sides you’re doing something wrong. But I knew we were right; Trey knew we were right; so we kept going forward.
TREY CSAR: I think at one point in time… Ed, I think you told me and Jason to forward all of the emails to some email account we set up. It lasted about a week, and we were like… It was such a distraction.
JASON BROWN: We didn’t have time.
ED BARBER: I was getting them also. I mean, they were really nasty, not only with the four-letter words and profanities and obscenities and so forth, but threats to murder me and split me open and put me on TV, just like we wanted to be done with Dale Earnhardt. Jason, you may want to explain why we entered this fight. Were you going to publish the pictures?
JASON BROWN: No. No. I had absolutely no interest in publishing the pictures. I wasn’t even going to look at them. I was just going to get the pictures, go to Shands and see if I could get some sort of analysis of what actually happened in that crash from there. But no, why would I want to put pictures of a dead person’s corpse on the front of my newspaper? It doesn’t make any sense.
TOM JULIN: One of the reasons that the photographs were so important was that right after the crash, NASCAR had its own doctor come out with a statement that said Earnhardt died not because his neck had snapped – which is what happens if you don’t have a head and neck restraint system – but the doctor said his seatbelt broke. And that immediately sent the media into a frenzy about whether NASCAR was involved in a cover up of what had happened. And what made it even more suspect was that the man that was the president of the company that made the seatbelt said it’s impossible for that seatbelt to have broken, what NASCAR is saying happened could not have happened. So you had a real controversy that the autopsy photographs would have been very relevant to.
JASON BROWN: I personally believe that it was a cover up, which is a big reason why I wanted to continue the fight because I didn’t believe what they were saying was true.
TREY CSAR: From what I remember back during the time of the Gainesville murders, The Alligator cut a deal for access to photographs of the crime scenes and other evidence to where someone could have gone into the courthouse (to see the photos). I think we would have cut that same deal, but the Earnhardt family and NASCAR’s lawyers had zero interest talking to anyone in the media, particularly a student newspaper, about any sort of deal that would ensure the access for experts to go in and really have access to evaluate the photos. The very lens supports this who idea of was there a cover up? You gotta remember, none of us were, and I’m still not, a NASCAR fan. It’s like Michael Jordan dying in the middle of an NBA game. This was an icon for the NASCAR community.
ED BARBER: If I can speak to the seatbelt issue. Tom is absolutely right. Furthermore, the NASCAR people kept the local police from examining the car, loaded it up and shipped it immediately to North Carolina. No one saw it — except the EMT who took Dale Earnhardt out of the car, and he testified that he had to cut the seatbelt to get the body out.
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: We also have Matthew Boedy on the phone who was Chief News Editor at the time and was traveling out to Daytona to report on the court proceedings and reporting on The Alligator itself. Matt, can you talk a little bit about what it was like to go out to NASCAR country and report on this case and also reporting on your own newspaper?
MATTHEW BOEDY: I think that one of the first things I did was go to the meeting in Daytona where the Earnhardt family and the Sentinel were having a mediation. Right? Cause they had gone through lawsuits and they were mediating. All of the media were in the parking lot waiting for them to come out with this deal that had been talked about. I had no idea at the point that we were not going to accept the deal, so I wasn’t exactly a target of questions. But once we didn’t, it became quite odd having to call Teresa Earnhardt’s lawyer very day for a statement in whatever the news was that day, and not hear him say “Why are you doing this?” He was very professional with his answers, but if anything, he represented NASCAR country on the phone to me every day, like he just didn’t get why we were doing this or the privacy aspect of it.
MATTHEW BOEDY: In regard to the emails, I got similar emails because obviously my name was on the story of all that happened. I don’t remember any threats, but I think what was interesting was in Daytona, they really didn’t get the thing we just talked about, why accountability needs to happen with the medical examiner, why newspapers need to look at autopsy records. Like (Trey) said, if Michael Jordan had died… Dale Earnhardt was mentioned on the radio yesterday about NASCAR (inaudible) their races and how they need something to bring the fans back, since they haven’t had fans back since he died. That’s been 15 years.
MATTHEW BOEDY: One more thing about NASCAR country. My first job after Florida was in rural South Carolina, which I’ll just say is NASCAR country. One of the first assignments I went to was to go cover this fundraiser where they were selling – like a yard sale to raise money for a kid who had cancer – and there was this table full of Dale Earnhardt memorabilia being sold on the table. I certainly didn’t say anything about who I was or where I came from or anything about the story. And I didn’t bring it up to anyone I ever met in that area of South Carolina, because I knew, in some manners, what the reaction would be.
And on covering ourselves, I think that I (inaudible) at some point because Trey and Jason had always said they didn’t want to be spokespersons, they didn’t want to be quotes in the paper, which is why we didn’t run AP stories. I think we wanted to cover the story, but we didn’t want it to be about ourselves. So it became a one-person job because they didn’t want a whole team on it, you know, to make it sound like we were invested as much as if it were a regular investigation.
MATTHEW BOEDY: The Sentinel and the South Florida Sentinel spent many hours and manpower covering the story both before and after the lawsuit. And I think that covering ourselves made it, well… I sat down to write the story each day, and I was just using the nutgraf of what we had written yesterday. But I had to think about what is we were doing and why we were doing it and why we were asking for these things. I think for me, it took away the idea of a student newspaper. We were being a newspaper covering an issue, but we were also being a newspaper advocating for public information, which is what we had done in the student murder case. Covering our own thing was about advocating for that. As much as I tried to write the story as unbiased and objective, I was also constantly trying to point out why we were doing this, why we were asking for these records. Especially, once the law was signed in place. We had to argue that the law was unconstitutional. We lost that. Then we had to argue, “OK, if the law is the law, why do we want the records?” in the court hearing. One of the reasons was newspapers should hold government officials accountable. We lost that. I have no idea why, but nonetheless they wouldn’t give it to us. So covering ourselves meant in some manner we had to advocate for ourselves, which I think was an important thing to do.
TREY CSAR: Jason and I, we sort of a set a policy: We’re not going to talk to Matt about this issue. The end. Despite the fact that he works directly for us. Tom really became the key legal source. We’d go into Jason’s office and close the door. We were going to have legal strategy discussions and get updates. Then we’d walk out and Matt would be sitting there looking at us, and we’d say “Go call Tom.”
JASON BROWN: How’s it going Matt?
MATTHEW BOEDY: I never got from Jason or Trey, you know, “don’t do this story” or “don’t write this story” or “write it this way.” They didn’t want to talk about it all. Legal strategy or not.
ED BARBER: I think that was admirable that they were able to separate themselves from the story. But one of the reasons for the struggle onward and the law being unconstitutional in our view – and I think it still is – is that not only did it affect his autopsy photos, not only did it affect all autopsy photos, but it was retroactive to the beginning of time. In other words, all autopsy photos no matter where they were in the state of Florida – in medical records, in medical students’’ records, in coroners’ offices – where they were had to be sealed. And the only way they could be opened is if a person went to court and presented some vital reason as to why they should be viewed. Before this law, for 100+ years autopsy photos were opened. No newspaper – except one – ever published autopsy photos; front page, back page, classifieds, comics or anywhere. That one instance was when a woman died who was said to have been abused while she was in seclusion with Scientology religion in Clearwater. She had many bruises and traumas to her body, and the family asked the St. Pete Times at the time, now the Tampa Bay Times, asked them to run a very tasteful photo of her autopsy showing the bruises to prove that she had been abused before she died. That’s the only time in more than 100 years that autopsy photos that they were so anxious to have sealed – that’s the only time they’ve ever run in a newspaper.
TOM JULIN: Ed, I remember that very well. It’s hard to think back to this now, but the Internet was still pretty new at that time. Google was just starting to really catch on. And what was making the Earnhardt case really the test case, not only for Florida but for privacy advocates across the United States, was that they were saying while autopsy photographs historically had been open to the press and few had been ever published, there was a new thing in town called the Internet. Michael Uribe, who was alluded to earlier, made that a fairly dramatic point because he wanted to publish the photographs. He was not just a crazy, nut sort of a person. He was somebody that said, “I feel as though NASCAR is killing people, and I think the world needs to see the result of these horrendous crashes, that we’re not going to see any sort of regulatory reform, not have any legislative action that looks at this and tries to rein in these deaths until people realize exactly what’s happening.” Now he may not have been entirely altruistic, and he may have been doing it for his own purposes. But he made that case, and I thought it was an important point to be made in that case. And just one other little point about the prior case: The Alligator got into this – in part because it was asked by other media to join hands with them – but in part because The Alligator always had been a leader on these tough public records law issues.
TOM JULIN: There was an allusion to the Danny Rolling case several years earlier. And it involved a serial killer at the University of Florida who had killed these students in just this horrific way. And Jamie Abdo, the editor at the time, was very insistent that she wanted to see those photographs to understand exactly what had happened, how the crimes had been committed. As with the Dale Earnhardt case, the media were very much involved in that, very much wanted to see those photographs to understand those crimes. There was a real feeling of need-to-know-what-happened to these particular students. There were lots of rumors about what had happened and so forth. Jaime insisted on trying to get those records. All the other media, as with this case, decided they were going to abandon that effort because they would be pilloried by the public as ghouls. All the others backed down. Jaime Abdo and The Independent Florida Alligator said “we’re not going to back down.” In that case, the judge ruled for The Alligator and allowed anyone who wanted to see those photographs to come into the clerks’ office and to look at those photographs. The judge that entered that order went on WGGG that evening and told the public, explained why he was allowing this to be done. The following day people came, and they lined up around the block to see those photographs. It was a very brave decision, and we felt that it set a very strong precedent for the Earnhardt case. It was not meant to be.
TREY CSAR: The (inaudible) of five students don’t carry as much weigh as a sports hero. Also important to note, that today NASCAR does use a head-and-neck restraint system.
TOM JULIN: That is exactly right.
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: So Trey, while the other media outlets dropped out of the case, they didn’t necessarily stop covering what was going on. I know that you were on CNN and constantly interviewed. How did it feel to be in the news and not just covering it?
TREY CSAR: It was awkward. And I think it was awkward for two reasons. One way, it was awkward for Jason and I just in general. We were in our 20s and getting all of these – I remember we did a NASCAR radio show. And to the CNN interview, I remember getting picked up in a car and driven to Jacksonville in the dead of night to tape with Greta von Sustren. It was all of this weird stuff, and what made it even weirder, remember, we weren’t talking to Matt. Major media outlets really wanted somebody other than a lawyer to talk about why would you do this. Stephanie, in preparation for this call, dug up the old transcript from the CNN interview. It reminded me just how much derision there was, just like “you guys are just a student newspaper, what are you doing?”
TREY CSAR: We consistently talked to a lot of the points Tom made about the strong and important history of The Alligator being a stalwart in First Amendment issues related to the media. You talk about all these other organizations that vanished in the dead of night. I think part of it is, in addition to being pilloried, is an economic argument. To Ed’s credit, to Trish’s credit, who was the advertising lead at that time, we did lose some advertisers. For those of us on the news side of the house, we don’t even really think about it. So Whole Foods decides they’re gonna be done? we said all right. The business side of the house took a chance as well, and really you know, sort of got behind. Everyone was on the same page.
JASON BROWN: They were extremely supportive. It would have been very, very easy for the business side of the house to almost force us to back off. Like Trey said, to Ed and Trish’s credit, they stuck right with us.
TREY CSAR: To this day, I still can’t get over the fact that it seemed like such an open and shut case for us. We said look, it’s going to follow the model of Danny Rolling. This shouldn’t be a big deal, and it was just a mess. Everywhere we turned it was a mess.
MATTHEW BOEDY: Perhaps it was because we were a student newspaper that we didn’t have the same-to-face consequences as the Sentinel who backed away or the organizations since they had larger advertising budgets to worry about. In fact, we were the only people who could do this.
ED BARBER: I beg to differ. We can talk about that later.
TOM JULIN: I do too. I think The Alligator has just as much to lose as other media.
ED BARBER: Maybe even more.
TOM JULIN: The thing is we had different management. We had different management that had the courage to stand up and say, “We object, this is not right.” And Ed Barber and all The Alligator editors over time that had been involved in this litigation over and over. It really goes back to Ron Sachs. He was the first guy to stand up and say I am going to publish this information even though there’s a state law – when Ron did that, he was arrested. He was taken away in handcuffs and charged with committing a crime.
ED BARBER: A felony.
TOM JULIN: A felony. It was a felony. He took the risk that could have entirely destroyed his career and he set the example for all of us, all down the line.
JASON BROWN: There’s definitely an institutional streak of insubordination that I’ve always been a fan of when it comes to The Alligator.
ED BARBER: Tom, do you mind if you speak to the fact where our first appeal district court was located?
TOM JULIN: This was in Daytona Beach. The case was litigated in Daytona Beach. It was before a judge, not a jury. Judge Will was our judge. He was very good in terms of letting us put on a case, listening to what we had to say. The whole trial was televised. I don’t know if Trey and Jason you remember, but the jury box was set aside for the media so they had as many cameras as they wanted to have. We had all the networks, and satellite trucks were outside. The NASCAR fans were all outside and inside. The judge allowed Teresa Earnhardt to use his chambers when they took lunch breaks, so he showed her quite a good deal of (inaudible) favoritism, I would say. We had intervening in the case. We had the solicitor general of Florida, we had lawyers from the governor’s office involved in the case, some of the finest lawyers in the state, I would say, and they all –
ED BARBER: We had the finest, Tom.
TOM JULIN: Thank you, Ed, but then we probably would have won.
TREY CSAR: We were in Daytona Beach. We were never gonna win in the first round.
TOM JULIN: And the second round was in the Fifth District Court of Appeal. What everyone was concerned about at that point was whether these exemptions to public record laws could stand up. Of course, we had just been through 9/11, and laws were starting to be passed around the country. Many were passed exempting autopsy photographs. But also many exemptions were passed to public records laws to protect public buildings. That was really part of the focus of the oral argument: If this sort of an exemption was unconstitutional, wouldn’t there be others that were unconstitutional as well? Which made it a very difficult case to win. I thought we had a pretty good First Amendment argument that the law as they had passed it, it allowed judges to order photographs turned over if you could show cause. But it didn’t define what good cause was, so a judge could discriminate based on your speech, of who you were and why you were asking for them. I still think that’s a good argument.
ED BARBER: Didn’t we have some amicus also?
TOM JULIN: We did. We had Jon Kaney who was representing the Florida Press Association; I think the Society of Professional Journalists; and there were several others all along the way.
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: In 2001, The Alligator actually received the Society of Professional Journalists First Amendment Award for its work in challenging the Family Protection Act and the constitutionality of it. I don’t know if there’s anyone who can speak about that. I think, Trey, maybe you were the one who got the call?
TREY CSAR: Yeah, I was the editor at the time and Teresa Wood was the managing editor. Jason, I think you had moved to the editorial page after your term as editor. I remember getting a call in the newsroom. It was odd. Teresa and I went to Seattle to accept the award at a big conference. Jason, you were there, too, I think, weren’t you?
JASON BROWN: Yeah, I went.
TREY CSAR: For me, it was the first sort of positive pat on the back The Alligator got. For the last, the two years of this mess that had been going on in Florida. It was reassuring to know that your colleagues – I think we sort of earned our stripes with the media and the folks who were there – that our colleagues were recognizing that this was important, that it was a fight worth fighting, even if in the end, we didn’t prevail.
ED BARBER: I agree. For those who don’t know what the Society of Professional Journalists is, it’s members of journalists in all phases of media. More than 15,000 members, if I remember correctly, throughout mostly the United States and throughout the world also. This award was given to The Alligator even though there were many other newspapers that did some great things for the First Amendment – and those other newspapers were primarily professional daily newspapers. So The Alligator won over the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, etc. etc. So I’m very, very proud of what the editors did in that and the fact that – I’m a member of SPJ also, have been for many decades – and I was so proud of my own colleagues that they voted for The Alligator.
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: Ed, going through this entire case. Tom, maybe you can talk a little bit about the case getting all the way up to the Supreme Court. But receiving the First Amendment Award and then coming to terms with the final decision, what was that like? Knowing The Alligator was defeated in this case?
ED BARBER: For me personally, it was very prideful in the fact of the continuation of the quality of journalism and journalists that The Alligator produced. Through the years, as Tom pointed out, many editors took chances on their own careers. Some of them even have their own careers threatened, even by newspapers believe it or not – I’m not sure of the exact case, but I think Tom knows it – because of coverage that they didn’t like. I can’t tell why. I can’t attest to their motive. But we’ve had people whose lives were threated, their jobs were threatened, even their status in the classroom was threatened by their own professors for criticizing them for taking a particular stand. And they always held firm. I’ve always been proud of them. It’s such an honor and source of pride to work with such people. It’s really inspiring.
If I could say one thing about the Florida Supreme Court . Correct me if I’m wrong, Tom, but it seemed like at the time, there was a vacant place on the Florida Supreme Court and that it was either evenly divided or it was weighted toward what you might call the left-leaning judges as opposed to the right-leaning judges. And the new governor, Governor Bush, seemed to take a very, very long time to appoint a new, very conservative Supreme Court Justice. And then our case was taken by the Florida Supreme Court. Am I wrong?
TOM JULIN: The Florida Supreme Court decided actually not to review the case. And you may be right about the appointment came before that decision came out. It was very disappointing. Obviously, the case was a very important case with very serious, difficult legal issues. I don’t want to downplay the other side of this case because they had a serious point to be made about privacy rights. There were some real serious issues about retroactivity of laws, whether you could pass these things after the fact and so forth. Very, very important points, and the Fifth District Court of Appeal had written a fairly long opinion so I thought we had a chance at getting review. But the Florida Supreme Court ducked the case. They’re not required to review decisions from intermediate appellate courts, and it elected not to review the case. In order to get the case to the United States Supreme Court, we then asked that court to review Fifth District Court of Appeal’s decision directly. It also declined to review. We don’t know what the vote was; they don’t tell you when they decline to review it. So the only review that we got was from three judges on the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach, Florida.
ED BARBER: Right. Thank you.
TREY CSAR: Ed, you referenced earlier – to be honest I don’t remember now – what was happening on the business side of the house while we were all causing a ruckus.
ED BARBER: Well, some of the fans of NASCAR started boycotting advertisers and threatening them that they would enlarge the boycott. There were different groups. Other groups said they would boycott and would get their friends and NASCAR fans if they ever advertised in The Alligator again. Many of our advertisers pulled out and stopped advertising. As those of you who are listening in heard from the beginning of Stephanie Gocklin’s explanation, that’s our only source of revenue: Advertising. And at that even, we’re only allowed to have students as a part of their education to sell advertising for us. So every semester or every second semester or maybe even third semester if we were lucky to have them that long – that’s how long we have them to build up a relationship with our advertisers compared to other local media who have full-time people. Many of them with not only many years of experience in advertising but many years with the same medium, so they have built this relationship to the point where sometimes they don’t even have go out to see the person. They just call them on the phone. So we’re already at a disadvantage trying to sell adverting in our market. When there’s a threat like this was, we suffered greatly. I can’t give any numbers.
ED BARBER: If I could go back for a minute to show you why it’s so important for us to have advertising revenue: At the time that we went independent, I was the general manager of The Alligator on campus at that time. So I was very heavily involved in the negotiations with the university and so forth, so I know a lot of the details. At the insistence of the university, we had built up – at great sacrifice I might say – a reserve of $90,000. When we went independent, the university kept that. They wouldn’t let us have that cash, so we were starting with no cash. That money instead went to the various colleges to start their college councils. So they got that free money, and we got nothing. That by the way was after I was no longer involved with the negotiations, not that I could have done any differently. Nevertheless, that $90,000 we received as a fee-paying basis. That reserve was almost equal to the fee-paying student basis that we got as part of the university student affairs, like student government, the union, the athletic association. Everybody gets a portion of the “activity fee,” is what they call it. Although you don’t have a choice of not taking part in the activities, you still have to pay the fee.
ED BARBER: At any rate, we were getting $93,000 a year from that activity fee because they had so many fee-paying students. I think we got something like $1.35 per student per semester. To give you an idea of what that means, the buying power of $93,000 in 1973 is equal to $496,000 in 2015. So that’s the kind of revenue we lost every year after we went independent, and that revenue is 100 cents on the dollar. What I mean by that is that when the university issued that revenue – that we had to negotiate for every year, by the way – that when they issued us that revenue, we got that money as though it was (inaudible) at the bank. It didn’t cost us a penny. Well, when you sell advertising, you sell an ad for $100. It might cost you $85 to produce it, so that’s not 100 cents on the dollar. So anyway, that’s why all the years since 1973, The Alligator has had to make up in selling on the street and the education of advertising students, but you know what? Part of the advantage of The Alligator is they produce a great editorial product. The students would read, and still do, every day voraciously. With that kind of impact of readers, that’s why we were able to scratch a living out on the street. Because the wise advertisers knew that this was a condensed, very special market they could not reach in any other way than through The Alligator. That’s not just because of the quality of our salespeople and those who trained them like Trish Carey, who’s now the general manager of The Alligator, but the quality of the editorial product.
ED BARBER: The students and others – not just students, but faculty, staff, just people who are interested in the university – read The Alligator tremendously. And they do it because they know it’s the student voice. No one else is in charge except the students. The students own the newspaper. They run the newspaper. And there are some other people in the business division who assist them in just being around.
MATTHEW BOEDY: What I always wanted to know, Jason or Trey, perhaps, what was, maybe you knew more than me, what was the student response to our fight? Did they care? Did they not care? Did you hear from students? It seems that perhaps they — if that was our audience, what was their response? Do you have any memories of talking to students or emails from them or anything like that?
JASON BROWN: Honestly, my head was so much into the production of the newspaper that I didn’t really hear a lot. I heard, you know, from other people in the J-School I definitely got a few “attaboys” from the students and from the professors. But generally speaking, I had my head down trying to do my job. Trey?
TREY CSAR: I seem to remember that most people didn’t care. This wasn’t big news for the student population with the exception of a sliver of folks who were NASCAR fans. There were some student NASCAR fans, but I think most students didn’t care. And to the point we talked about earlier where we sort of deprioritized coverage of ourselves, I don’t think we ever really lit the fire for people to care.
MATTHEW BOEDY: I think that if the story happened today, we would face much more difficult questions like, do we run a Twitter poll, asking “Do you support our fight?” Or do we do a Facebook chat about it? We would face more questions about how we want to promote the story than perhaps we did when the Internet was in its infancy. And it would be a much more difficult story to cover if we were covering ourselves. As you said, you didn’t really talk to me, but now there are more ways in which the story could be amplified if we wanted to, I suppose.
JASON BROWN: Sure, absolutely. It was at a time when that wasn’t really happening. And like Trey said, most of the students at UF, unless they were NASCAR fans, they had other things to think about.
TOM JULIN: One of the things that I think The Alligator needs to do is to get one of those Skype passes to cover the White House press conferences.
JASON BROWN: For what, comedic value?
TOM JULIN: I don’t know, it might be The Alligator is the only media that will really stand up to Donald Trump. I don’t know.
MATTHEW BOEDY: Well we did cover the inauguration in 2000, I believe so.
JASON BROWN: Yup.
ED BARBER: Maybe one of the past editors could talk to the current editor and suggest they find a graduate student – because they have to be student produced – who lives in D.C. going to Georgetown or something who would be willing to cover the White House.
TOM JULIN: You don’t even have to be there anymore.
ED BARBER: What kind of fool would turn that down?
TOM JULIN: Trump has decided that he’s going to give Skype passes out so you can just Skype right into the White House press conferences.
ED BARBER: I’m sure he selects who he would give them to.
JASON BROWN: I’m sure.
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: So I think we’ve actually answered most of the questions that have been asked during the webinar itself. If any of you want to maybe share a few final thoughts before we wrap up. Just in the interest of time. We’re approaching 5:00. Ed?
ED BARBER: I hate to keep repeating myself, but I can’t think of another newspaper I would rather be associated with than The Independent Florida Alligator because of what it’s done in the business division being supporting of the newspaper and being able to generate the revenue to support it. And of course the editorial division, which is always in charge at the prerogative of the editor alone. It’s just a tremendous institution, and I so wish that I don’t know if it’s Chronicle of Education, New York Times, but someone would really do an in-depth analysis of what The Alligator has done and been through through the years. And what it means to journalism, especially in Florida. We have editors of many daily newspapers that came out of The Alligator.
TREY CSAR: Ed, I think you need to write a book.
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: Absolutely. That’s one of the things we’re hoping to share through this webinar series. Some of the defining moments and what The Alligator has contributed to the journalism field.
JASON BROWN: I’ve always been proud to tell people I worked for The Alligator in college. I don’t talk about the Earnhardt trial that much, but I do talk about The Alligator all the time. Kudos to the advertising section. Again, as I said, they didn’t have to back our play. They didn’t have to back our play nearly as much as they did. So thanks.
ED BARBER: Trish Carey, the current general manager, was in charge of advertising even when she was advertising director and after she became the assistant general manager, she was still in charge of advertising, so kudos to her.
JASON BROWN: Absolutely.
TOM JULIN: Thank you, Ed. Obviously you’ve guided the ship all these years with Trish’s guidance in the last several years as well. All the editors and Trey and Jason and Matt, they’ve all have been sensational over the years. And I think it’s the obligation of all of us to now figure out how to make sure the next 44 years are as successful as last 44. I think one of the things we’re really going to have to do is to get out there and get more financial support from not only those people who were a part of The Alligator but from everyone in the University of Florida community that has benefitted from and will continue to benefit from having a truly independent student publication, whether it’s a digital publication or a print publication or whatever it is. That’s something that needs to be innovated and made better, and it needs to have the financial support of everybody that benefits from it. That’s what newspapers and other media companies are doing around the country now more and more. They’re really following The Alligator’s model of the not for profit, tax-exempt organization. So I hope that Stephanie and everyone involved with the Alligator Alumni Association can really get that effort going to make The Alligator flourish for the next 44 years.
ED BARBER: Thank you, Tom. I hope I’m around the next 44 years.
TOM JULIN: I’m sure you will be.
ED BARBER: Yeah, right. I’m now 77.
TOM JULIN: Ed, you’re just amazing how you hang in there and continue to provide support. So I have no doubt you’re gonna be here with us for another 44 years.
ED BARBER: Thank you.
JASON BROWN: Let’s hope.
ED BARBER: The Alligator was always the important thing. I think Jason was at a conference for the SPJ when I very undeservedly received a national award.
JASON BROWN: Yeah
ED BARBER: I’d point out to him then that the award wasn’t really about me. It wasn’t what I did through The Alligator. It was the students. Always the students. And I had some colleagues, I’m afraid, in my very narrow strip of professional newspaper advisement who would refer to their students as “the kids.” “The kids did this.” “The kids did that.” “The kids wanted to do this.” I said, “No, they’re not kids. They’re adults, and they act as adults. They reason as adults. There’s no such thing as The Alligator is college journalism. It’s just journalism, and they’re all journalists. They’re not college journalists. They’re journalists who happen to be working at a college newspaper. They’re journalists.”
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: Absolutely, Ed. I just want to say a few more things before we sign off. And just thank everybody for attending this webinar. We will have a recording available at alligatoralumni.org. We do want all of The Alligator alumni – journalists, graphic artists, advertising professionals — and anyone that ever contributed to The Alligator in a meaningful way to join us at the Alligator Alumni Association. On our website, you can sign up for the newsletter and indicate your interest in volunteering. We’re currently seeking volunteers to assist with storytelling about The Alligator, strengthening our Alumni Association network and assisting with fundraising and grantwriting campaigns.
ED BARBER: And mentoring.
STEPHANIE GOCKLIN: Again, in the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing new ways you can support The Alligator or in the meantime, you can contact General Manager Trish Carey, directly via email at [email protected] to make a donation today. Thank you again for the great questions and everyone’s participation. We hope to have more of these webinars in the future, looking at different aspects of the history. So make sure to sign up for updates, and you’ll be hearing from us soon. I hope everyone has a great night.