BRIDGEWATER – A college newspaper that printed the name of a rape victim who spoke at a recent rally against sexual violence has caused an angry backlash on campus here and touched off controversy over the administration’s response.
On Friday, the editor of the Bridgewater State University student newspaper remained adamant that she will resist growing calls to remove the online version of the article, while the paper’s faculty adviser contested his apparent ouster.
The imbroglio features conflicting accounts from college officials and the newspaper, underscoring the often tense relationship between campus administrators and student newspapers and the emotionally charged ethical debate over whether it is ever acceptable to name sexual assault victims.
In its April 11 edition, The Comment newspaper published an article about a female student who shared her experience of being raped and coping with the aftermath. The student identified herself by name at the "Take Back The Night” march, according to Mary Polleys, the newspaper’s editor. The rally was held on campus and attended by some 200 people.
The article drew immediate protests from students who considered it a potentially dangerous invasion of the woman’s privacy, and on Wednesday Polleys was called to meet with Dana Mohler-Faria, the university president.
Polleys said Mohler-Faria threatened to shut down the paper and urged her to remove the article, saying it was "unconscionable” they had refused to do so. He also said he would forbid administrators from speaking to the newspaper in the future, she said.
"Personally, I was furious over the whole thing,” said Polleys, a senior who has worked on the paper for three years. "There’s no question he was trying to intimidate us.”
A university spokesman said Mohler-Faria "certainly encouraged” Polleys to remove the article to protect the student’s privacy, but did not demand it. He denied that Mohler-Faria threatened to shut down the paper.
"There’s absolutely no question in the university’s mind that the paper has the right to print what it wants,” said the spokesman, Bryan Baldwin. "But when there are questions of the validity of facts and when there are questions of the rights to privacy, that deserves a conversation.”
Administrators had received dozens of complaints about the article, Baldwin said.
"He was certainly very concerned, based on the reaction,” he said of the college’s president.
The controversy also led to the removal of the newspaper’s faculty adviser, David Copeland, amid conflicting accounts of the circumstances. Baldwin said that Copeland, a part-time journalism instructor, indicated he would step down at the end of the academic year of his own accord, in compliance with a rule banning part-time faculty from advising clubs. "In no way, shape, or form was there any pressure for him to step down by the university,” he said. Copeland’s position was an exception to the rule, Baldwin said.
But Copeland took issue with the university’s account.
"I need to state in no uncertain terms: I have not resigned or otherwise left my position as the adviser to The Comment,” he wrote in an e-mail to faculty Friday. "Nor do I intend to.”
Copeland said the newspaper staff voted this fall to have him stay on as adviser for four terms and that he intends "to fulfill that commitment.”
Media specialists said college administrators are often quick to exert pressure when school newspapers cover sensitive topics. Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said college administrators often attempt to coerce student journalists to "follow the administration’s preferences.”
Polleys said the article included one piece of information that the woman did not mention in her speech – the college where the rape occurred. The reporter found that information from the woman’s online profile, she said, and decided to include it because the woman has a relatively common name. Polleys said she is surprised by the anger over the article, noting that students have discarded copies of the newspaper in protest. The event had been publicized and featured a number of students who identified themselves as survivors. "It was a very public event,” she said. "She was brave enough to stand in front of 200 people and share her story, and I didn’t think there would be a problem with giving her a greater audience.”
Polleys said the woman expressed concern that the story would make it easier for her assailant to find her and asked Polleys to remove the online version.
But Polleys defended the story and said she would not bow to outside pressure. "I think it would set a dangerous precedent,” she said.
Schools: Bridgewater State University