Harassment Charges Against Fairfield University Student Paper Dropped, But Questions Remain about Freedom of Student Press

By December 11, 2009

A two-month controversy following the publication of a column in the Fairfield University student newspaper The Mirror has finally come to an end now that harassment charges against the paper have been dropped following mediation between The Mirror and four Fairfield students. The students and The Mirror are content with the outcome, and the discussion sparked by the column may even result in increased protections for the paper. Achieving this amicable outcome, however, involved troubling means and risks setting a dangerous precedent for freedom of the press at Fairfield.

As we wrote last month on The Torch, the controversy began with the September 30 Mirror column entitled "The walk of shame [Capitalize?]," an installment in a long-running "He Said/She Said" column series. The column, written by Fairfield student Chris Surette, provoked an overwhelmingly negative response from the Fairfield community, which Mirror Editor-in-Chief Tom Cleary tried to calm. The Mirror soon announced changes to "He Said/She Said" to take the possible reactions of the community into consideration.

The independence of The Mirror, which receives $30,000 in annual funding from the university as part of an ongoing contract, also came into question. On October 9, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Thomas C. Pellegrino informed The Mirror that Surette’s column as well as another section of the paper failed to "comport or comply with the guidelines and standards set out in the Code of Ethics and/or Code of Procedure which are incorporated into the Mirror Funding Agreement for the Academic Year 2009-2010." According to Pellegrino, the Agreement had thus been rendered null and void, which threatened the future existence and funding of the paper.

Before the paper could fully articulate its response, Pellegrino dropped another bombshell on The Mirror, informing the editors that they were to appear at a disciplinary hearing to face charges of harassment from four students.

As FIRE wrote in its letter to Fairfield President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., on December 4, days before the editors were to face these charges:

Surette’s column cannot possibly be construed as harassment. Offended students, after all, were under no duty to read The Mirror. Indeed, rather than "harassment," Surette’s column is an obvious exercise in parody and satire, areas of speech central to many of our country’s honored political and social traditions. Parody and satire exist to challenge, to amuse, and even to offend. Such material is protected under the First Amendment and should likewise be protected at a university like Fairfield, which claims to respect its students’ right to free expression. If speech like Surette’s column is considered outside of the parameters of protected speech at Fairfield, then no expression is safe.

At the same time that FIRE was springing to The Mirror‘s defense, Fairfield’s Academic Council was taking its own actions to protect the independence of The Mirror. As Cleary wrote on December 8, the Council voted with near unanimity on a number of measures, including removing the paper from the auspices of the Student Affairs department and re-examining Fairfield’s harassment policies in light of the charges brought against The Mirror. Pellegrino expressed his openness to their suggestions. In his own statement to the Academic Council, he stated that "[b]y looking into our system design for advising and supporting the paper, we will be able to better demarcate the role that student affairs, academics, and the advisory board play in responding to the many and varied claims/concerns/questions that may be raised towards the paper in the future." He effectively signaled that for now, at least, the paper’s existence and funding are protected.

As for the editors of The Mirror facing charges of harassment, the situation fortunately did not get that far. Perhaps as a result of FIRE’s letter and the other pushback from on and off campus, the complaining parties finally agreed to mediation. Following the mediation session, the harassment charges were dropped and, among other things, The Mirror promised to discontinue "He Said/She Said." Of the successful meditation between the students and The Mirror, Cleary wrote that

Both sides realized they held more in common than they originally thought. By simply fleshing out the issues, a change was made, one that The Mirror had been considering since the controversy started. In the end, mediation worked properly, but it also showed future groups that The Mirror will listen, you just have to give them a chance.

FIRE is pleased that the mediation proved successful and that the specter of harassment no longer lingers over The Mirror. Its lot could certainly have been worse-Tufts University, for example, not only allowed such a charge to be brought against a student paper, but has even allowed the finding to stand against the paper for more than two years.

The fact remains, however, that even though the harassment charges were dropped, the university entertained the charges and let the complaining students wield unreasonable power over the paper and its content. The students did so to great effect, given that the controversial column was dropped and the paper changed its policies. This result should alarm anyone who cares about freedom of the press. Of eliminating "He Said/She Said," Cleary states:

It was not a barter deal, although the harassment charges were lifted. The charges were lifted instead because they were brought about to make The Mirror listen.  Once the charges served their purpose, that is, to bring both parties together, it was sensible to both sides to have the charges dropped.

And of the drawn-out proceedings, he writes:

This delay and confusion caused two months of frustration that allowed the issue to spin out of control and away from what the protestors really wanted to do, which was get the attention of The Mirror.

Harassment charges comprise an awfully big stick to wield, though, if all the students wanted to do was sit down and talk things out with The Mirror. Why not simply ask a mediator to help them meet with the paper? Should you hold up a bank just so you can get someone to answer a question about your home or car loan? FIRE worries about the precedent that has been set here by using harassment charges as the impetus for dialogue. Will this tactic be used against The Mirror again? We hope not, but this episode is a sad testament to its effectiveness, even if someone has no intention of following through with the charges.

Besides, in the end, The Mirror decided to eliminate a satirical column from its pages as well as similar columns. Cleary says all of this was "not a barter deal." Whether it was or wasn’t, The Mirror is of course free to make such editorial choices and populate the content of its pages as it pleases. Still, as Cleary wrote in defense of the column immediately after the controversy started to brew: "[He Said/She Said] 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." The paper has now backed away from such a defense.

Indeed, offense is often the essence of satire, and by that definition, Surette’s column succeeded. Hopefully, the Fairfield community will remember the value of freedom of the press the next time it finds something objectionable in the paper.

FIRE awaits an official response from Fairfield University. The situation has been resolved amicably, but in doing so, a powerful weapon has been seized by those who seek to silence unpopular voices on campus. FIRE’s eyes will remain on Fairfield long after "He Said/She Said" becomes yesterday’s news.

Cases: Fairfield University: Harassment Charge and Funding Threat Against Student Newspaper