FAIRBANKS, Alaska, February 11, 2014—In a victory for freedom of the press, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) has cleared The Sun Star student newspaper of any wrongdoing following a prolonged investigation of the newspaper’s content prompted by repeated and meritless complaints from a UAF professor. UAF officials announced the end of the investigation in a letter to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which intervened after the situation had dragged on for more than eight months.
“The University of Alaska Fairbanks is to be commended for recognizing the First Amendment rights of The Sun Star,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “Unfortunately, the prolonged chill on freedom of the press stands as a stark reminder of just how fragile students’ First Amendment rights can be on campus.”
The Sun Star’s troubles began shortly after it published its 2013 April Fool’s Day issue, in which the paper used a still from the 1998 PG-13 Robin Williams movie Patch Adams to illustrate a satirical article on how UAF was planning to build “a new building in the shape of a vagina.” The article was authored by Lakeidra Chavis, now The Sun Star’s editor-in-chief. Three days after the article’s publication, UAF faculty member Jensine Anahita filed a sexual harassment complaint against the newspaper, describing the article as “patently offensive” and stating that the article “creates a hostile environment because it comprises sexual harassment.” On April 15, 2013, UAF informed Anahita that it would not investigate the complaint because the newspaper’s expression was clearly protected by the First Amendment.
On April 23, The Sun Star published a news article by staff reporter Annie Bartholomew, detailing student interactions on the “UAF Confessions” Facebook page. Several screenshots from the site were posted with the article, including names and profile pictures. All information used in the article was publicly available.
This led Anahita to file a second complaint against The Sun Star, claiming the second article’s content was “sexually harassing in nature” and constituted “cyberbullying.” Anahita also argued that UAF had violated its Title IX obligations by not investigating her previous complaint. The resulting investigation was not completed until September 2013, but it rejected Anahita’s claims, ruling the newspaper had not engaged in sexual harassment and finding “no evidence” that the articles had created a hostile environment.
After Anahita appealed this second finding, UAF retained an outside attorney to review UAF’s investigation and conclusions. With the review still not completed by January 15, 2014, FIRE stepped in, asking UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers to conclude the investigation of The Sun Star. FIRE pointed out to UAF that the months-long investigation of the newspaper on the basis of published content—which the university had already determined twice to be entirely protected by the First Amendment—was having an impermissible chilling effect on campus expression and student journalism. FIRE further noted that in 2001, former President of the University of Alaska system Mark R. Hamilton issued a system-wide memorandum noting that speech protected by the First Amendment must not be subject to investigation. Hamilton’s memorandum was spurred by FIRE’s advocacy on behalf of Professor Linda McCarriston, whose poem “Indian Girls” had sparked controversy.
Finally, on February 4, 2014, Chancellor Rogers notified FIRE that the external investigation had once again fully exonerated the newspaper. Though the possibility exists of a “discretionary review” by the University of Alaska system president, Chancellor Rogers has fully accepted the review’s conclusions.
“We hope this marks the end of The Sun Star’s long and frustrating quest to vindicate its First Amendment rights,” said Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “We commend UAF for refusing to accede to demands for censorship, and we hope UAF will continue to do so when the First Amendment rights of other UAF students and student organizations are at stake.”
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, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Peter Bonilla, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Image: University of Alaska Fairbanks Campus – NBBJ