Appeal finds in favor of UAF student newspaper in sexual harassment case

February 12, 2014

by Westin Morrow

FAIRBANKS — The University of Alaska Fairbanks student paper, “The Sun Star” was fully protected by the First Amendment when it ran two articles a faculty member complained constituted sexual harassment, according to an independent review.

The independent reviewer, brought in after an appeal by the complainant, came to the same conclusion as the original university inquiry.

The university began an inquiry into two articles that appeared in the student newspaper last April after a faculty member complained the articles constituted sexual harassment and created a hostile work environment.

One article, which ran as a satirical piece in the paper’s April Fools Day issue, referred to a vagina-shaped building the university was constructing. The other article included several Facebook comments made by students on the Internet page UAF Confessions.

A complaint was originally filed with the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, but the office deemed an inquiry unnecessary.

After the first complaint was dropped, the faculty member filed a separate complaint under Title IX. The faculty member also filed a Title IX complaint against the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity for refusing to investigate the newspaper for sexual harassment.

Though the office chose not to pursue the newspaper for the faculty member’s original complaint, the Title IX complaint constituted a “prima facie” case the university was legally mandated to pursue, Chancellor Brian Rogers said in a letter to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

UAF had Jennifer McConnel, the labor and employee relations coordinator for the University of Alaska system, to review the complaint. McConnel found in September 2013 that the newspaper was not at fault.

The faculty member appealed that decision, however. The university then brought in the outside investigator, Perry Grover, who, on Jan. 25, agreed with McConnel’s original findings and concluded that both “The Sun Star” and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity were in the right.

“The bottom line is that Title IX allows a range of expression and conduct that some people will find offensive, but is nevertheless considered healthy for society, particularly in a public University and equally so where freedom of the press is involved,” Grover stated. “In my opinion, the two Sun-Star(sic) articles fall well within that range, which is what the Investigation Report concluded. Additionally, UAF’s DE&O employees correctly understood and applied applicable law to this case.”

The chancellor officially adopted Grover’s findings Jan. 29, though the university gave both parties until Feb. 5 to appeal, university spokeswoman Marmian Grimes said.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education praised the university for its handling of the situation, stating only that it wished the newspaper had been acquitted of any wrongdoing sooner.

“From my talks with the newspaper’s editor-in-chief … I think this has definitely worn on her and worn on probably a lot of people working at the paper,” said Peter Bonilla, the foundation’s director of individual rights defense program. “They’ve paid a high price for expressing their First Amendment right, and it was a price that they shouldn’t have had to pay.”

Lakeidra Chavis, the author of the vagina building article and the paper’s editor-in-chief, said the process has negatively affected the paper’s attempts to recruit students. Chavis said one professor she reached out to said he no longer supported the paper and would not recommend it to students.

The News-Miner reached out to the faculty member who filed the complaints who did not have a comment for this article.

View this article at The Daily News-Miner

Schools: University of Alaska Fairbanks