Censorship becomes a Seminole rule on the reservation

It's always sad to see a newspaper gutted, doubly so when it was a scrappy publication with a history of tough reporting and interesting stories.

Unfortunately The Seminole Tribune got in the way of a political struggle for control of the Seminole Tribe that ended May 24 with the ouster of chairman James E. Billie. There are piles of money at stake, not to mention a powerful job held by one charismatic guy for the last 22 years. So if you were at the top of the indigenous heap, it would probably be best not to have a handful of nettlesome reporters asking impertinent questions.

Step one in getting rid of Billie -- silencing the newspaper he championed -- took place a month earlier when the Tribal Council voted to fire four Tribune journalists: Pete Gallagher, Dan McDonald, Charles Flowers, and Colin Kenny. All four were full-time. All four were white. All but Kenny had journalism backgrounds.

Now The Seminole Tribune was always a hit-or-miss proposition. Pick up any given issue dating back to 1979, and you're more likely to get chaff than wheat. But the paper hit more than a few home runs and didn't shy away from afflicting the comfortable -- namely Billie, who was listed in the paper's masthead as the publisher. "It was beneath him to say "don't print something,'" says Gallagher, the former tribe operations director and Billie's right-hand man. "I don't remember him ever telling us we could or couldn't run something in the paper."

When Billie came under fire ten years ago for allegedly fathering a child out of wedlock, the paper printed the story, notes Gallagher. (When DNA testing proved the child wasn't his, they ran that too, he adds.) Most recently the Tribune ran articles critical of Billie's desire to score himself a bigger private jet.

In 1990 Gallagher and Flowers won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for an investigation into the case of James Richardson, a black man who spent 21 years in prison for murdering his seven children. Their stories, which appeared in both The Miami Herald and The Seminole Tribune, got Richardson a new trial; he was later cleared of the charges and set free. The two also penned a series of stories on the Rosewood Massacre, and more recently wrote for nine months on the state's failure to protect a cache of 5000-year-old canoes discovered in the receding waters of Newnan's Lake near Gainesville. Their coverage led to the listing of the lake on the National Register of Historic Places. It also earned them an award nomination from the Sierra Club.

"The evolution and sophistication of the paper parallel the rising success of the tribe in its other enterprises," says Flowers. "When we began it was a very narrowly focused paper published strictly for the interests of tribe members, who won the beauty contests, who graduated from high school, et cetera."

Look for a return to such drivel under the editorship of Virginia Mitchell, an enemy of Billie's who, according to Gallagher, is more of an administrator than a journalist. "She never wanted to learn the basics of the news business," he says. (Mitchell did not return Undercurrents' calls for comment.)

Consider, if you will, what would happen on Survivor if the tribe voted a member off but he or she flat wouldn't leave. It would be anarchy. Chaos. Bad manners (but good TV).

Well that's exactly the scenario being played out at a small Hollywood church. Except our reality show involves a pastor and his flock. There's plenty of backstabbing but no immunity, no slaughtering wild boars, no bad rice. So maybe we've stretched the analogy a bit thin, but work with us here.

Our story concerns New Macedonia Baptist Church and its spiritual leader, pastor Reginald Gilbert. Like many churches, New Macedonia is governed by a board of directors, to whom Gilbert reports. According to court documents, Gilbert took it upon himself last June to incorporate the church under a new, though similar, appellation without the board's approval. Then in November he canceled a vote that could have gotten him booted. "... [T]he Defendant told the congregation that God had laid it upon his heart to [appoint himself] rather than have an election," the complaint states. "That announcement caused a great deal of concern among the congregation."

In January, when Gilbert switched the name on the church's checking accounts to match the new moniker, a faction of parishioners decided to act. They hired Hollywood attorney Joe Schneider and filed suit to fire Gilbert.

In April Circuit Court Judge Herbert Moriarty ordered a binding election to answer the question: Should he stay, or should he go? The polling took place May 24 at the church under the scrutiny of Broward County Sheriff's deputies. The outcome: 81 in favor of booting Gilbert, 66 against.

But the pastor has the tenacity of a visiting in-law. On Sunday, May 27, he was again in the pulpit. According to court documents he told the congregation: "I got a call from the 14th judicial on Friday afternoon that I was supposed to be here."

Alas, there is no "14th judicial." On June 1 Moriarty signed an emergency injunction to purge the church of its pastor once and for all. Last Sunday Gilbert obeyed the letter of the judge's order, if not the spirit. He didn't show up at the church -- nor did anyone else with keys for the door. About 40 parishioners spent the morning milling around outside but no one could enter.

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