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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Here’s a fundamental fact: America’s best and most aggressive collegiate daily newspaper is the Independent Florida Alligator. It has stood the test of time and has been a force to be reckoned with in all the eras in which it has served.

I was selected to serve as the editor of the Alligator for 1971 to 1972. Then, the newspaper operated out of the Reitz Union, and it was tethered to UF by a modest but significant financial stipend derived from student activity fees. The Alligator was dependent on UF for those fees, though it had a robust level of advertising. That connection did not deter the newspaper from regularly “biting” UF administration on a variety of issues.

The seminal issue of my time — and the controversy that forever changed the newspaper — was about both the First Amendment and abortion. Abortion was banned by Florida’s state legislature in 1868, when an abortion information ban also was enacted.

Early in my tenure as editor, we interviewed women who had undergone legal — and illegal — abortions. We prepared a comparative sidebar story on state abortion laws. We compiled a list of counseling services that could help guide women — and the list actually included the Catholic Student Center, surely not apt to encourage any woman toward abortion.

John Parker, a brilliant law student who wrote a popular editorial page feature, “Fluted Columns,” offered an unsolicited “legal” opinion: Publication of the list would be a felony — a violation of that 1868 statute, 797.02, that prohibited anyone from any activity to hint, print or advertise for an abortion.

Such an old law seemed both archaic and unconstitutional. We had wanted to print the counseling list before we learned it was “illegal.” After Parker’s legal lesson, we only wanted to print it more.

Because the Alligator received a subsidy from UF, we were considered an official “organ” of the university, with the UF president technically the newspaper’s publisher. Stephen C. O’Connell, a proud Gator alumnus who had gone on to a stellar legal career capped by service as chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, was our UF president throughout my undergraduate years.

We were asked to submit the entire controversy to the Board of Student Publications — the governing agent of the Alligator at that time — and we were willing to abide by its decision. Surprise: We prevailed with a 4-3 vote to allow publication of the list, with all four students voting our way.

That’s when O’Connell intervened, visiting me to overrule the board and prohibiting publication. I left that meeting inclined to disobey O’Connell’s edict and to print the list anyway.

A strategy meeting was hosted by now-retired UF journalism professor Jean Chance at her home with her then-husband, attorney Chuck Chance (who later defended me from criminal charges related to this incident).

A few key student leader friends, all of whom tried to discourage publication of the list out of concern for the consequences likely to confront me, also were there. Weighing their shared perspective against all the lessons I had learned about the meaning of the First Amendment, I told them we were going to go forward with publication for a principle more important than the risks.

The “illegal” counseling list was set for the front page. But our Ocala printer declined to print the list. Instead, he allowed some text to explain the most famous block of front-page empty white space ever to grace the Alligator or any other campus newspaper.

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I asked my friend, then-Student Body President Don Middlebrooks (now an acclaimed federal judge) if we could mimeograph 22,000 copies of the list on Student Government’s equipment. He agreed — but insisted on paying for the printing costs personally.

In the Alligator newsroom that evening, our entire staff divided up copies of the mimeo sheets in a felonious conspiracy to stand up for the First Amendment. I signed the master copy of the counseling list, with my signature appearing at the bottom of the 22,000 copies, so that no harm would come to others or to the newspaper.

Our commando team of young journalists skulked about campus to await delivery of the Alligator to boxes outside classroom buildings and stuffed every newspaper with the list.

Chuck Chance, joined by UF constitutional law professor Fletcher Baldwin, defended me. The need for their services was immediate, as State Attorney Eugene Whitworth sought my felony arrest the same day.

I was given a mug shot, fingerprinted and mocked by a jailer whom I had written about a year earlier in an Alligator exposé of the county jail that followed the newspaper’s investigation of an inmate’s murder that was made to look like a suicide.

My arrest made national news and was the buzz at many campus newspapers. Considered no flight risk, I was released on my own recognizance.

A few hours later, O’Connell held a news conference. He announced that if convicted, besides a possible year in prison, I would face certain firing as Alligator editor and likely expulsion.

Then, O’Connell surprised us all by announcing a double jeopardy: He would seek an advisory opinion from Florida’s attorney general, Bob Shevin, about whether the UF president could exercise prior restraint to stop publication of any particular matter. If the answer were yes, I would be removed as Alligator editor and would still face UF disciplinary action because I had disobeyed his command NOT to publish.

Chance and Baldwin strategized my defense. My parents and I received dozens of letters from strangers, many of them anonymous threats of violence, and some calling me “Satan’s boy” or the “baby-faced baby killer.”

Shortly before my trial, Shevin’s office rendered its answer to O’Connell’s question in an opinion written by young lawyer Barry Richard, now one of the nation’s most respected legal minds — the attorney who represented the campaign of George W. Bush in the disputed 2000 presidential race. Basically, the attorney general’s office said no to O’Connell — no prior restraint over the college newspaper. Although the opinion had no force of law, it was a huge victory for the Alligator and other campus newspapers — but a serious rebuke and embarrassment for O’Connell, the former chief justice.

Merely days later in December 1971, Alachua Judge Benmont Tench (yes, he is the father of a namesake son who is a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) held court on my felony charge.

Chuck Chance and Fletcher Baldwin were brilliant, well-researched and articulate in their arguments that F.S. 797.02 was wholly unconstitutional. The courtroom gasped as Judge Tench declared that old law unconstitutional. But it wasn’t over yet.

Chance and Baldwin then had the temerity to actually challenge Florida’s equally old 1868 anti-abortion law. Again, they argued about the law being unconstitutional. No one expected what came next: Judge Tench struck down Florida’s existing abortion law, which had stood for 103 years. Ultimately, the Florida Legislature was forced to rewrite the law, loosening its restrictive provisions on an issue that continues to divide Floridians — and Americans — to this day.

Meanwhile, this double rebuke of authority clearly did not sit well with O’Connell. We had rejected his authority on this issue, even embarrassed him, merely by standing up for the First Amendment. We also prevailed in his dominant province — the law and the courts.

Shortly thereafter, O’Connell announced plans to force the Alligator from the campus — cutting off student-fee support for it, though some funds flowed in the form of limited guaranteed advertising. It was a temporary modest lifeline that was eventually cut off. Thus was born the Independent Florida Alligator, now celebrating a good chunk of the newspaper’s 100-plus years of service.

The smart, tough and earnest young journalists who have labored in the Alligator newsroom throughout its history never have considered it a mere classroom or sandbox. They have considered it a mission to inquire and to inform and, inevitably, to rankle the powerful by the newspaper’s very nature.

It is now, as always, a feisty and vigorous watchdog.

The Alligator remains the best college newspaper in the country, despite continued challenges, conflicts and controversies.

For those of us who have worked there — and for the tens of thousands who have been its readers — we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Ron Sachs, 1972 graduate of the UF College of Journalism and Communications, is an award-winning newspaper, magazine and television journalist who also served two Florida governors — Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles — as a senior media counsel. Since 1996, he has owned a Tallahassee-based media consulting firm that consistently ranks among the nation’s top 100 in the industry.

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