First Amendment right taken from yearbook

I was disheartened to read of Florida A&M Interim President Henry Lewis’s censorship of university students recently. The president has withheld distribution of the campus yearbook, allegedly because of grammatical errors.

The book also contains an article by the editor complaining of $10,000 missing from the publication’s campus account, according to the Student Press Law Center.

Such action flouts the rights guaranteed all adults, including students, under the U.S. Constitution.

Lewis, who as head of a state university is a government employee, is explicitly prohibited from censoring by the First Amendment. He also disregards at his peril a recent, costly and embarrassing federal court decision against historically black Kentucky State University for withholding its yearbook. He should release FAMU’s books immediately.

No one respects the English language more than I do. But unlike Lewis, I understand that the First Amendment allows people not just to speak, but to speak poorly, if they please.

Otherwise, badly edited yearbooks would not just be endangered but so would most e-mail, online chat room dialogue, nonsense corporate names that mash words together without regard to capitalization, and love notes dashed off on the back of whatever scratch paper is at hand.

This latest offense sets a shoddy precedent for the new administration’s record on free speech.

Based on previous observation of the Humphries regime, this may snowball into a campus environment that generally devalues free speech, eventually threatening more widely followed student media, like the campus newspaper and broadcast outlets. “Today for you, tomorrow for me,” goes a Jamaican proverb my father often quotes to me.

Peter A. McKay is a Wall Street Journal reporter, FAMU journalism graduate and ethics fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.