Florida Relents on Haiti Footage

April 15, 2010

The University of Florida has lifted a ban on two graduate students using footage they shot in Haiti -- after the earthquake and at a time when the university barred student travel to the country -- in their master's thesis about aid workers.

The university's ban angered not only the students and their professors, but many advocates for academic freedom, who viewed the idea that a university would bar specific material from a thesis as an infringement on academic freedom. Many universities bar their students from traveling to countries where safety might be an issue. What was unusual about Florida's move in this case was applying a ban to a research-related trip that had faculty support.

The graduate students -- Jon Bougher and Roman Safiullin -- have noted throughout the controversy that they did not use university funds for their travel.

In an e-mail message Wednesday night, the university's provost, Joseph Glover, cited that fact to say that the university no longer objected to the use of the footage. "I would like to clarify that the University of Florida does not interpret its Haiti travel policy to reach personal travel that is not undertaken in a University capacity or with University funding, other resources, sponsorship, sanction or approval, on an individual’s own time and resources," he said.

Glover went on to defend the university's commitment to academic freedom. "The university has not prevented and would not prevent a faculty member from using research legally obtained on personal travel without university resources," he said.

And he went on in the e-mail to state that the students could use the footage. "In light of our investigation in the particular case involving the graduate students’ theses work, and in view of our interpretation of our Haiti travel policy’s application, the university and students have been able to resolve their respective concerns," he wrote. "The students are using in their work the post-earthquake Haiti material that they obtained on personal travel without the use of university resources."

Glover's e-mail was sent to the American Association of University Professors, which had raised questions about the ban on the use of the footage.

The students are in a documentary program at Florida. They were already in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, on a trip not at issue. The trip that the university objected to was a subsequent one, which the students felt was necessary to record what had happened to the subjects of their video.

While the outcome of the situation for the students is likely to please advocates for academic freedom, the situation facing their faculty adviser may not.

Churchill Roberts, the students’ adviser and co-director of the Documentary Institute, has strongly backed them in their fight to use the footage. The Gainesville Sun reported this morning that the university is investigating whether Roberts violated university policy by condoning the second trip to Haiti when the university had prohibited students from traveling there.



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