SOUTH BEND, Ind., September 20, 2007—Indiana University–South Bend (IUSB) has reversed its punishment of a student reporter who was found guilty of “conduct that is lewd, indecent or obscene” for interviewing members of a campus group about their production of the play “The Vagina Monologues.” Student Robert Francis appealed to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which successfully pressured the university to overturn its unjust decision.
“FIRE is pleased that IUSB correctly reversed its decision to punish Robert Francis for engaging in constitutionally protected speech and journalistic investigation,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “But the case against Francis should have never progressed to the level it did. Decades of Supreme Court decisions protect students’ rights to engage in provocative and ‘offensive’ expression. The same standards that protect students’ rights to perform a play like ‘The Vagina Monologues’ also protect Francis’ right to discuss that play.”
Every Valentine’s Day, members of an IUSB campus group, the V-Club, stage a production of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.” In February 2007, Francis, a 47-year-old student reporter, began a series of articles about the play for IUSB’s student newspaper, The Preface. While interviewing one actress about her role in a segment of the play called “Hair”—which involves a woman discussing the sensation and social implications of shaving her pubic hair—Francis engaged in a conversation about the issues addressed in that role. “My line of questioning was in regard to the topic of the play. Under other circumstances, the discussion might have seemed inappropriate, but I took my cue from subjects the actress brought up,” Francis said.
Yet the actress, an instructor at IUSB, filed a complaint against Francis, and after an informal meeting with Francis, IUSB Director of Judicial Affairs Charlotte Pfeifer charged him with “conduct that is lewd, indecent, or obscene” and, strangely, “stalking or hazing.”
Pfeifer suggested that Francis’ punishment include a “processing session,” or mandatory psychological counseling with an IUSB counselor; a “one-way listening session” where Francis would not be allowed to speak but would have to listen to his accusers tell him how they felt degraded by his interviews; and the requirement that he view and write a response paper on a film about sensitivity. On June 8, a Hearing Commission dismissed the “stalking or hazing” charge but found Francis guilty of “conduct that is lewd, indecent, or obscene.” The Hearing Commission report stated that, “during [Francis’] interview… [he] crossed the line from the educational discussion of the cultural issues of a woman shaving (or not) her vagina to sexually explicit and crass comments that were demeaning to women.”
Francis and Student Government Association Chief Justice Charles Norton, who has aided Francis through this process, appealed to FIRE, which wrote a letter to IUSB Chancellor Una Mae Reck on August 21. FIRE explained that IUSB cannot, under the First Amendment, find Francis guilty of improper conduct simply because he asked questions and made comments that some would interpret as offensive. FIRE also highlighted that in addition to the clear double standard at work in this case, IUSB overstepped its bounds by unconstitutionally sanctioning Francis with invasive psychological counseling. Luckily, an IUSB counselor agreed that a “processing session” was unnecessary and spared Francis the intrusion of having his thoughts evaluated. FIRE demanded that IUSB reverse the finding against Francis and strike the “guilty” decision from his record.
IUSB’s Associate General Counsel Kiply S. Drew responded to FIRE on September 18 by reporting that Chancellor Reck overturned the decision against Francis because the sanctions were improperly imposed “based on speech rather than conduct.” Drew wrote, however, that the university would not remove evidence of the complaint from Francis’ record, as FIRE had requested. IUSB’s September 18 letter to Francis also says that the university will dismiss a complaint that Francis filed against the V-Club. In that complaint, Francis alleged that members of the club conspired to suppress his article and that Pfeifer both facilitated the complaint against him and pressured The Preface’s editor to cut the article. The Preface subsequently refused to print Francis’ article and fired him as a student reporter. A Student Government Association Defense Brief provides evidence of Francis’ allegations, but university officials have refused to investigate them.
“FIRE is happy that IUSB has acknowledged it cannot sanction a student on the basis of protected speech,” FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Samantha Harris said. “But we still have serious concerns. Allowing a frivolous, overturned complaint to remain on a student’s permanent file represents an unnecessary blemish upon his record. Dismissing Francis’ independent complaint against the V-Club without fully investigating it is also problematic. FIRE will continue to pursue this case until we are satisfied that IUSB has undone its damage to Robert Francis.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Samantha Harris, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Una Mae Reck, Chancellor, IUSB: 574-520-4872; email@example.com
Charlotte Pfeifer, Director of Judicial Affairs, IUSB: 574-520-5524; firstname.lastname@example.org