Members of a task force that reviewed journalism practices at Central Connecticut State University are giving the process mixed reviews, including a student editor and newspaper adviser who say it has caused a chilling effect on campus.
University President Jack Miller convened the task force in March after The Recorder ran a controversial and supposedly satirical editorial titled “Rape Only Hurts If You Fight It,” which claimed rape had been a positive influence on Western civilization and that it benefits “ugly women.”
The article’s author, Opinion Editor John Petroski, said the editorial was meant to be a satire. The article became a target of widespread ire and the newspaper’s editors removed Petroski from his editor position, but he remained on staff.
National media attention focused on the campus, and in a statement issued in February, Miller proposed looking further into The Recorder itself to “take positive steps to educate students about the damage such blatantly misogynistic and homophobic content causes.”
The task force — whose members included newspaper advisers, student leaders, several university professors and leaders of campus organizations, such as the Women’s Center and the YWCA Sexual Assault Crisis Service — reviewed The Recorder’s constitution, the roles of its editors and advisers, its funding models and past First Amendment court cases.
The Recorder is a weekly publication and receives $25,000 each semester from the university, almost all of which goes to printing costs, editors said.
The task force presented its findings in a final report released May 18. The recommendations included hiring a full-time media adviser, creating a journalism major and encouraging professional development training for student journalists.
“U.S. Supreme Court decisions have repeatedly affirmed strong First Amendment protection for university student newspapers, prohibiting retaliation against unpopular publications, their writers and their editors, thereby limiting the scope of faculty or professional staff intervention in the editorial process and proscribing the imposition of ‘sensitivity training,’” the report said.
The final report is in the hands of the university president, who expects to make a public response in the late summer or early fall, university spokesman Mark McLaughlin said.
“The task force doesn’t change much of anything right now,” said Vivian Martin, newspaper adviser, a member of the school’s media board and a member of the task force. “Even before the controversy, there was talk of some more training aimed at the newspaper staff, a for-credit weekly critique session and some other tweaks, and that will continue.”
Though the report acknowledged the student newspaper’s right to print without prior restraint or review by the university, newspaper adviser Susan Sweeney said she was concerned the added presence of the university in student-run groups would keep them from taking chances from which they could gain educational value.
“I’m concerned about the intrusion of the university into [student-run organizations] because I want to preserve student-run organizations as a safe place for students to make decisions that they might make differently in the future,” said Sweeney, who is also the associate director of the Department of Student Activities and Leadership.
“They can have this experience at the school newspaper now, and then when they’re sitting at a seat at a different newspaper or publication, they will have the benefit of having had this experience to weigh the consequences of their decisions in the future.”
Some members of the task force, including Sweeney and Recorder Editor in Chief Mark Rowan, said the task force did have an important educational purpose.
“The task force was a positive experience for both the newspaper and the university,” Rowan said. “[The final report] certainly benefited the faculty, but the newspaper is put out for the students and by the students, so it is essential for them to also get and understand that information.”
Then-student body President Christopher Brine said the task force was important because it helped faculty and students understand the relationship between the university and the student newspaper.
“It let there be no doubt that a school newspaper is an arena of student learning that cannot be corrupted by actions of the university administration but may only be influenced by the newspaper staff itself or through outside student activism,” Brine said in an e-mail.
But Martin suggested the task force did not go far enough to help educate the entire community, rather than members of the student newspaper and faculty.
“People were much more interested in dealing with the students on the newspaper and sensitizing them than addressing some of the issues that affect the campus as a whole,” Martin said. “Yes, we need to deal with issues of press responsibilities and the First Amendment. … But the broader discussion needed to happen as well.”
Although the report recommended programs to teach students about “journalistic integrity and professional competence,” adviser Vivian Martin said the report should have included programs designed to give all students the chance to become familiar with free-speech issues.
“I think we should have recommended some co-curricular activities around the challenges of living with the First Amendment,” she said.
Sweeney said she was concerned some on the task force were interested only in giving suggestions and not introducing ways to see them accomplished.
“They had a whole lot of ideas about what we should be doing,” Sweeney said. “But they’re not the ones that are in the seats of facilitating it. We turned around and said ‘You know, that’s great that you think training should be improved. What additional resources is the university going to dedicate to facilitate that?’”
Rowan said situations in which newspapers are reviewed by their universities could be considered intervention, but he also said the journalism department had no intention to harm the work students are doing.
“Universities certainly have the means of influencing the final product,” Rowan said. “Whether it be through something like this committee that has the potential to make student writers more timid towards reasonable, yet still controversial articles or through sensitivity training or the classroom.
“While the professors we interact with give us plenty of feedback and assistance, I do not feel it is to spin the content in a certain direction.” Rowan said.
Advisers and student editors contend the situation at Central Connecticut has had a chilling effect on student expression, especially with regard to student-run, printed media.
Sweeney said several months after the initial controversy that prompted the review, editors of a campus literary magazine decided not to publish some photographs they thought might be too controversial on the basis that “this campus has been through enough this year.”
Maurice Ledoux, an editor of CCSU’s literary magazine, The Helix, said his publication made the decision not to publish artistic photos of a man masturbating in front of a computer because of the controversy and review of The Recorder.
After speaking with the magazine’s adviser and having an official debate that featured statements from heads of the art and women’s studies departments, The Helix’s five editors voted 3-2 not to publish the photos.
“We didn’t want that sort of backlash of, ‘how you could do that in the aftermath [of The Recorder controversy],’” Ledoux said.
And as for The Recorder, Rowan said the effects of the controversy and the review continue to have a presence in the newsroom.
“There certainly is a cloud hanging over the office since the [controversial] article and the committee started their report,” Rowan said in an e-mail. “Part of it is a renewed consciousness, but I do believe part is a fear to challenge and to be controversial in a positive way.”
Rowan said everyone at the paper is “very careful” and that what was “once seen as humor or a strong opinion has been more scrutinized and deemed taboo.”
“We try to operate as normally as possible, but all the writers who have been through this will still feel its presence for a long time,” Rowan said. “I don’t believe the content of the paper has changed that drastically, but it is something we all have to fight through each issue.”