Student columnist is fired after criticizing faculty for showing explicit film

OHIO —Miami University of Ohio student AaronSanders heard the French department was making students read and watch contentbordering on “pure pornography.” Although he had not seen the filmsor read the books, he wanted to make a statement. So, in a column in a Januaryedition of the Miami Student, the student newspaper of Miami University,he took a written stab at the department.Now, Sanders is dealing withthe backlash. “I’ve been fired for something theypublished,” said Sanders, referring to Editor in Chief Jill Inkrott andfaculty adviser Cheryl Heckler. “The heat was put on them, they caved inand they took it out by firing me.”In his column published Jan.17, Sanders criticized Miami University’s French department for itscurriculum choices. He specifically targeted one professor’s decision toshow the French film Ridicule, which he said includes sexually explicitcontent including full frontal male nudity. He went on to accuse anotherprofessor, French department chair Jonathan Strauss, of consistently showinginappropriate content and ended by encouraging students to hold teachers“accountable for their ridiculous actions in theclassroom.”The column has sparked debate at Miami Universitybetween students, faculty members and Miami Student staff members.Sanders claims he was fired because Strauss complained to Heckler, who thenrecommended Inkrott take action. Inkrott said she made the decision to fire Sanders because she considered he had been irresponsible in hisreporting.“Freedom of speech is wonderful. It’s the wholepurpose why we’re here as newspapers,” Inkrott said. “But youneed to have some standards. It doesn’t mean just legal or libelstandards, but having ethical standards.”In the first draft of hiscolumn, Sanders kept the names of students enrolled in the class, his girlfriendbeing one of them, anonymous because he said students were concerned theircriticisms could affect their grades. When Inkrott insisted Sanders interview afaculty member in the French department for a response to the criticism, he setup an interview with Strauss, who he says was informed of the focus on hiscolumn. Strauss said this was not the case.“It seemed like anirresponsible mischaracterization of the department,” Strauss said.“I was surprised a lot of the conversation that I’d had with himwasn’t reflected in any way in the column.”Strauss calledHeckler, and the two met. Heckler, who does not edit or review stories beforethey appear in print, said she found the column problematic. She said Sandersshould have watched the film before critiquing it.“For me, theissue was professional standards,” she said. “I have often had theimpression that [Sanders’] highest goal was to be provocative, and I haveoften felt it has come at the expense of making intelligentarguments.”Strauss said he asked Heckler for space in thenewspaper to refute Sanders’ column, and Heckler in turn made threerecommendations to Inkrott. The suggestions were: Order Sanders to apologize toStrauss and the French department; dismiss him; or offer Strauss space to run anarticle of his own.Inkrott took responsibility for the column. At thetime, she said, she thought the revisions Sanders made after talking to Strausswere satisfactory, and she believed the column was written with goodjournalistic practices in mind. However, after Strauss said Sanders had not beenentirely forthcoming on the objective of the column and after learning Sandersused his girlfriend as a source, she said her viewpoint changed.“Iwasn’t going to fire him as long as he would apologize for it,” shesaid. “We’re all students. We’re still learning and makingmistakes along the way. If you take responsibility for it, we can look past it.I looked at it more as what will benefit the paper and is this type of columnwriting harming the paper? I thought it was.”Sanders refused toapologize. He later received an e-mail from Inkrott informing him he had beenfired. Sanders, who wrote columns for the paper for two years, said he was theonly conservative columnist on staff. He alleges staff members have longdisliked his opinions and used this column as a way of silencing him.“It really upset me that a student newspaper, which is supposed tobe for the students, is working against students and sided with thefaculty,” he said. “They’ve taken away my freedom to expressmyself, taken away my venue to speak freely and obviously censored me out of thepicture.”According to Inkrott, this was not an issue of censorshipbut rather one of credibility. She said Sanders did a poor job reporting thecolumn and was fired not because of what he wrote but the way he went aboutgetting his information.“You have to weigh freedom of speech andappreciate it in a way and not just fling it about. You have to use it in aresponsible manner. I don’t think Aaron did that,” Inkrott said,adding that she gave him the benefit of the doubt. “We didn’t takeaway his freedom of speech or censor him. He wrote the column. The column wentin.”Both Sanders and Strauss said they were pleased with thedialogue the situation sparked. After the column was published, the paper wasflooded with letters by students and faculty members, both in defense of theFrench department and in Sanders’ right for free speech. ClaireGoldstein, the professor who showed Ridicule to her students, told TheCincinnati Enquirer last week that while she maintains the movie is avaluable part of her class, Sanders should not have been fired for hiscolumn.“He should not be punished for his beliefs,” shesaid. “He shouldn’t be censored.”Sanders said he hopesto draw as much attention to his ordeal as possible.“The story isnot about Aaron Sanders at Miami University — it’s a problem muchbroader than that,” he said. “If I can’t save myself in thissituation, I’d like to at least prevent it from happeningagain.”The Miami Student is currently transitioning to nextyear’s editors, so although Inkrott said the situation taught her to lookwith more scrutiny on what other students are writing, she is not as involved asshe once was. Heckler said Inkrott handled the situation professionally, addingthat she does not anticipate Sanders’ termination will have any lastingeffects on the staff. Strauss said he was pleased with the space he received torun his rebuttal in the newspaper.As for Sanders, he says the experiencehas not deterred his love of writing, and, if asked to rejoin the staff, hewould jump at the chance.“If they offered me my job back,I’d take it in a heartbeat,” he said. “There’s a lot ofstuff I’d like to say before I graduate in May.”