Recently, we’ve highlighted the threats to freedom of the press regarding The Comment, a student newspaper at Bridgewater State University (BSU) in Massachusetts, after it published the name and some other identifying information of a BSU student who had spoken publicly about her experiences as a victim of sexual assault at a BSU "Take Back the Night" rally. The controversy has drawn critics as well as defenders of the journalistic choices of The Comment, and The Boston Globe is one of the latest defenders.
Despite the fact that the student volunteered her story in front of a crowd of roughly 200 people, and that she had been mentioned by name in some promotions for the event, the paper was condemned by many at BSU for printing many of the details the student had publicly volunteered. The paper was victimized by thefts (which to the best of my knowledge remain unsolved), and the paper’s editor-in-chief and faculty advisor were hauled into a meeting with BSU President Dana Mohler-Faria, where he pressured them to remove the article and reportedly threatened them with the possibility of shutting down the paper. Dave Copeland, the paper’s advisor, may have been targeted individually as well; as I wrote last week, "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." Whether this policy was in fact voted on, and whether or not it passed, are not yet clear.
The attacks on The Comment attracted a raft of press and drew the attention of the Student Press Law Center, which sent BSU a letter last week (PDF) warning the school, among other things, against targeting the paper’s advisor because of its disapproval of the paper’s content. Today, The Boston Globe published a stirring editorial in support of the paper’s First Amendment rights and journalistic decisions, succinctly and eloquently demolishing the pillars on which The Comment‘s opponents have based their arguments. The Globe editorial states:
It’s hard not to sympathize with her [the student who spoke out], given the circumstances. But she disclosed her name in a public appearance. Her identity was not hidden in any way. A photograph of her standing, bullhorn in hand, appeared with the story.
Given that scenario, it was fair for the newspaper to conclude that those actions made her appearance public enough to justify using her name. In an editorial, The Comment eloquently defended its decision, stating: "The Comment doesn’t publish the names of sex crime victims without their consent. But there is implied consent when someone speaks in a public forum." Moreover, "the whole meaning of the rally was to encourage victims of sexual assault to speak up and not live in shame."
The newspaper’s editorial also addressed the heart of the issue: The newspaper’s First Amendment right "to cover a public rally in a public area of a publicly funded university that was attended by more than 200 people." That is the right the university president should be championing.
Hopefully President Mohler-Faria and the BSU administration have read The Boston Globe today and see how even the threat of censorship quickly backfires on the censors.