At Fairfield University, a Student Column Prompts Harassment Charge against Paper

By on November 17, 2009

The Hartford Courant reported late last week that Fairfield University, a private, sectarian institution, has levied harassment charges against the student paper The Mirror after publication of a September 30 article entitled "The walk of shame."

The piece, an installment in a long-running "He Said/She Said" dueling op-ed series, was authored by student Chris Surette and featured rough-edged "advice" to male students about how to treat a woman following a sexual encounter.

Response to the piece was strongly negative. The ensuing protests prompted Mirror Editor-in-Chief Tom Cleary to issue an extensive response a day after the column was published. Cleary sought to explain the satirical nature of Surette’s piece, writing:

I would like to state that as a classmate and friend of Chris, that he is not the same person as he is in his column in his day-to-day life. He is playing the role of a character, a satirical, stereotypical college man and in that role, is bringing to light the very issues that were being voiced at the protest. While at times the column may be over the top, personal attacks on Chris and his family are not the way to express your feelings about his column.

As a column, "He Said," serves the purpose of serving up the sort of debate that was spurned by his latest column.  It is meant to bring about thoughts about the male and female mind. While "He Said" clearly does not represent all men, it is not meant to.  It is a satirical column in nature with the goal of being outrageous and over the top.

With that goal, it is bound to offend some members of our campus community. We respect the views of all members of the campus, but at the same time we ask for respect for our right of freedom of speech that allows us to publish these columns each week.

The Mirror has a goal of providing a voice for the students, but as an independent publication that simply sells the papers to the University, we are under no obligation to print what the administration or the student body as a whole wants to hear. We receive no funding from tuition or student fees and have no oversight from any member of the administration or faculty. As editor in chief, I have the final say over what content goes into the paper each week.

At the same time, we encourage this sort of lively discussion. It is important for members of the campus to be passionate about topics, even if they are attacking something in our paper. We would rather you write to us and tell us what you see wrong, than stay silent.

Cleary’s response did not stem the controversy over Surette’s column, howeverand debate over the column and the Mirror‘s future still roils Fairfield.

On October 7, in response to continuing protests, the Mirror announced changes to the "He Said/She Said" column, including "restructuring it and being more considerate to all and any possible interpretations," as well as "updat[ing] our Code of Procedure to include a section about ‘He Said/She Said’ to ensure that future columns will not include divisive or offensive language." Further proposed changes to the Mirror‘s procedures were announced by Cleary last week, including the possible addition of an advisory board.

Nevertheless, some on campus still feel that either Surette or the Mirror should be punished for the content of the piece. The Mirror is an independent student paper, but it receives $30,000 annually from the university as part of a funding contract that is now in question. A campus-wide e-mail announcement sent on November 5 from university administrators stated:

As the University signatory on that agreement, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students, Dr. Thomas Pellegrino, advised The Mirror in writing that the content contained in various sections of the Coffee Break page were in violation of the ethical and procedural guidelines of the current funding agreement. As such, the current funding agreement is null and void."

Then, on November 9, Pelligrino met with Mirror staff and requested that the paper’s editors appear in a hearing before a student conduct board to answer charges of harassment brought by four offended students. According to The Mirror, the students claim that they were "personally harassed by The Mirror’s printing of offensive language in the Oct. 1 ‘He Said’ column."

These are troubling developments that put the lie to Pelligrino’s statement to the Courant that Fairfield does not want to take editorial control of the newspaper. It seems that Fairfield does not actually want the kind of free, independent voice that the Mirror has been providing. Not only has Fairfield unilaterally tried to break its contract with the paper by declaring that the paper’s content was unacceptable, but the prospect of Fairfield’s punishing the author, the paper’s editors, and the paper itself because of the column sets a chilling precedent for speech at Fairfield. As Cleary told the Student Press Law Center in an e-mail: "If students realized they could simply go to the Dean of Students and say that they were offended by a column, or if the school could find someone to do it, that would be censorship and we would no longer be independent."

Cleary is exactly right, and he and the rest of the Mirror‘s staff should be commended for maintaining a steady commitment to freedom of the press throughout the current turbulence. Fairfield should drop any charges against the Mirror and its staff and should inform offended students that the answer to an offensive column is more speech in returnlike a well-reasoned Letter to the Editornot baseless harassment charges. This isolated column, which of course no student was under any obligation to read, may have been offensive, but calling it harassment trivializes true harassmenti.e., the type of malicious conduct that, at a public university, must be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive as to effectively prevent a student from receiving an educational benefit.

Censorship or punishment of the paper or its staff would teach Fairfield students the wrong lesson about how to deal with offensive or controversial viewpoints. FIRE will continue to monitor the situation, and Torch readers should stay tuned.