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Central Connecticut State Responds to Offensive Newspaper Article

In the February 7, 2007 issue of The Recorder, the student newspaper at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), student John Petroski published an article entitled “Rape Only Hurts if You Fight it” (article not available on the paper’s online archives but reprinted in full here). The article contained such sentiments as, “[f]ar from a vile act, rape is a magical experience that benefits society as a whole,” and understandably garnered enmity among offended students, professors, bloggers, and readers across the country.

In response to campus outrage about this article, CCSU President Jack Miller issued a statement saying that “it is incumbent upon the Central Connecticut State University community to examine a range of issues brought into even sharper focus by a recent issue of the Recorder.” Miller convened a Task Force on Journalistic Integrity, charged with reviewing The Recorder’s constitution, “U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding collegiate student newspapers” and “court decisions regarding ‘protected speech,’ ‘hate speech,’ and first amendment [sic] principles.” The Task Force was also asked to examine how to educate student journalists in “community standards, particularly the expression of misogynistic, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and other prejudicial ideals in print.”

Given the general disdain for Petroski’s article, President Miller’s ominous language about “community standards,” and the propensity of late for universities to respond to offensive articles with dramatic, repressive policies and punishments, I expected the Task Force to proffer a report that would dramatically curtail student press freedom.

But the Task Force—composed of faculty, administrators, student representatives, professional journalists, and specialists in women’s issues and sexual assault—returned on May 18 with a Final Report that addressed the emotional “pain” inflicted by Petroski’s article while seriously considering the First Amendment principles at stake.

With the help of Connecticut Assistant Attorney General Holly Bray, the Task Force wrote:

The constitutional right to a free press protects student publications from virtually all intrusions by public institutions upon their editorial discretion. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit stated in Joyner v. Whitting, 477 F.2d 456, 460 (4th Cir. 1973):

…if a college has a student newspaper, its publication cannot be suppressed because college officials dislike its editorial comment… Censorship of constitutionally protected expression cannot be imposed by suspending the editors, suppressing circulation, requiring imprimatur of controversial articles, excising repugnant materials, withdrawing financial support, or asserting any other form of censorial oversight based on the institution’s power of the purse.

Thus, universities may not de-fund a student newspaper nor impose a punishment such as firing, suspending, or expelling its editors and writers. To take such action would be to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of the paper and its staff, even if those actions were to be taken a substantial time later.

Under a section entitled “Alternative Responses to Offensive Speech,” the Task Force suggested that “[i]n the interest of guaranteeing a safe and welcoming campus environment to students,” CCSU should organize a series of events on media ethics, create an alternative monthly newsletter “to highlight concerns about The Recorder and other campus media,” and start a blog “to respond more quickly to controversial issues.” These recommendations embody the common rejoinder that disagreeable speech should not be censored, but rather countered with more speech. Further recommendations include hiring a full-time media faculty adviser, creating a journalism major at CCSU, and providing funds so that student journalists can attend media conferences.

In a potentially dangerous twist, the Task Force recommended that “editors of The Recorder…organize training on cultural competence to enlarge the writers’ and editors’ understanding of…the impact of its stories on diverse populations” and that the “Media Board or other office organize a series of events on the ethics of professional journalism and cultural competence regarding issues of race, gender, class, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, and other socio-cultural dynamics.” Just what this “cultural competency” consists of or how it can be achieved is questionable and seems to hint at official efforts at thought reform for student journalists. But the Task Force allays these concerns by ensuring us that student journalists will not be subjected such training against their will:

… to require student editors and writers to attend diversity or sensitivity training could be found to impermissibly impede students’ rights of association and could be construed by the courts as retaliatory action in violation of their right to freedom of speech.

The Final Report consists of recommendations only and does not outline a plan for implementing the changes it suggests.

Overall, CCSU responded responsibly to this volatile situation involving offended students, free speech purists, and a demanding public forcing it to take action. The thought and effort that went into the twenty-five-page Final Report reflect a true understanding of the necessity of a free student press on campus.

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