Bridgewater State Paper Reports Theft and Threats to Its Existence

By on April 26, 2012

At Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, student newspaper The Comment has come under fire for reporting on a recent "Take Back the Night" rally at BSU. FIRE has come to the paper’s defense

At the rally, a student addressed the crowd of 200 and shared a story about her experience having been a victim of rape. Leah Astore, a reporter from The Comment, wrote an article on the rally, and in preparing the article for publishing, The Comment filled in some background information about the student using publicly available information, including the school at which the student was previously enrolled.

The Comment was criticized for publishing the student’s story, including her name and the additional details, with critics saying that the paper violated the student’s privacy and safety. The Comment has refused calls to remove the article, asserting its First Amendment rights and also defending the quality of its journalism.

The calls for self-censorship are not the only problematic aspect of this case. According to The Comment, BSU President Dana Mohler-Faria has threatened the newspaper’s existence. 

On Wednesday, President Dana Mohler Faria, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Howard London, and Vice President David Ostroth met with Comment Adviser Dave Copeland and Editor-In-Chief Mary Polleys.

[...]

During Wednesday’s meeting, Mohler-Faria told Copeland and Polleys he had met with seven students on Monday who complained about the paper’s coverage of the Take Back the Night Rally and had received a complaint from a faculty member on Tuesday. [...]

During the meeting Mohler-Faria said he was not trying to suppress freedom of speech but making an effort to protect a student’s safety. According to Polleys at one point during the meeting he threatened to "shut the whole thing [the paper] down. 

It also appears that BSU’s trustees are poised to vote on a new policy that would uniquely affect the newspaper’s advisor, seemingly in retaliation for the newspaper’s exercise of First Amendment rights. I hope the recent lesson of East Carolina University helps BSU see the folly of pursuing such a course of action.

Action taken against the newspaper or its advisor because of the newspaper’s editorial decisions regarding content would be an impermissible violation of the First Amendment, and FIRE is seeing to it that it does not happen. 

The Comment also reports that it has faced multiple instances of theft, apparently in retaliation for the controversial article. The paper has filed a complaint with the police. BSU has the moral responsibility to denounce such actions and to make clear to the campus community that newspaper theft is not protected speech. Students should fight speech with more speech, not seek to silence those they disagree with.  

FIRE has been in contact with The Comment since yesterday, and Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel will be speaking at BSU tomorrow at 10 a.m.  His lecture, "Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment on College Campuses," will be held in room 202 of BSU’s Rondileau Campus Center. As Adam tells The Comment, "I think it would be quite valuable to set out the First Amendment issues." 

FIRE will keep readers posted on developments at Bridgewater State University.