Today FIRE announced that Indiana University–South Bend (IUSB) has made a significant step in reversing its series of unjust actions against student journalist Robert Francis. Francis was covering a production of “The Vagina Monologues” for the campus newspaper back in February when he interviewed students and professors appearing in the play about their roles. Being an interview about “The Vagina Monologues,” the interview topics were on the racier side of the spectrum, but Francis maintains that he broached only topics raised by the actresses and the play themselves.
During Francis’s interview, one actress openly discussed her role in the play—that of a woman who shaves all her pubic hair for the first time. Francis engaged her on this issue and got into a discussion—which he thought was apropos to the topic at hand—about the sensation and implications of shaven pubic areas. As Francis describes it, “taken out of context, this seems lewd, but we were talking about ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and standing two feet from a table where members of the club were selling vagina-shaped chocolate lollipops.”
The interviewee filed a complaint against Francis, and Director of Judicial Affairs Charlotte Pfeifer held an informal meeting with Francis before determining that he was guilty of “conduct that is lewd, indecent, or obscene” and, strangely, “stalking or hazing.” Her suggested punishments read like a how-to manual for campus thought reform: 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. Her assessment was upheld at the next level of the disciplinary process. Then a Hearing Commission upheld the “lewd conduct” charge but dismissed the “stalking or hazing” charge. In a line that most succinctly captures the irony, double standard, and arbitrariness of IUSB’s actions against Francis, the Hearing Commission report states 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.” [Emphasis added]
But just where is that line? Some would say that the play itself crosses many of those lines between acceptable language and crass expression. One could even make the case that a main point of “The Vagina Monologues” is to blur such distinctions.
Francis appealed to FIRE for help, and we wrote a letter to IUSB Chancellor Una Mae Reck in August voicing our concerns. Most importantly, since IUSB is a public school, Francis’ statements were constitutionally protected. Our letter discusses decades of Supreme Court decisions that address “the right to engage in shocking and potentially offensive speech, protecting both the language expressed in plays like ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and Francis’ comments to members of the V-Club.” FIRE also criticized IUSB’s attempt at thought reform and asked that the decision be reversed and any record of it removed from Francis’ record.
On Tuesday, IUSB capitulated by reversing the charges against Francis. A letter from the university’s Associate General Counsel, however, explains that IUSB will not remove evidence of the complaint from Francis’ file, but instead will insert a note that the complaint was ultimately overturned. Since any evidence of a frivolous and ultimately overturned decision can still tarnish Francis’s record, FIRE will press for IUSB to fully exonerate Francis. Further, IUSB Chancellor Reck informed Francis that a complaint he had subsequently filed against the V-Club—alleging that they conspired to get his article suppressed and get him fired from the paper—will be summarily dismissed without an investigation. FIRE will also press for IUSB to address Francis’ concerns in this respect.
We are pleased that our letter was successful in convincing IUSB that its previous actions against Francis were unconstitutional, unjust, and ill-advised; getting a university to admit wrongdoing is always a victory. But serious concerns about IUSB’s treatment of Francis remain, and FIRE will not let the university off the hook that easily.