Fairfield University files harassment charges against student newspaper

CONNECTICUT — Harassment charges have been filed against The Fairfield Mirror,Fairfield University’s independent student newspaper, in response to acolumn published Sept. 30.

The column, a take on the “walk of shame” that used words like “hood rat” and “victim” to describe women, was meant tobe satiric and represent a stereotypical college male’s point of view,said the columnist, Chris Surette. It instead incited protests at the Jesuitschool.

Four students at the university filed separate harassment charges betweenOct. 1 and Oct. 5 against Surette, citing the university’s harassment andequal education opportunity policy and claiming that the article created ahostile environment. On Nov. 9, the University announced they were transferringthose charges to the Mirror as a publication and subjecting the entireorganization to school conduct policy.

Mirror Editor-in-Chief Tom Cleary says the paper cannot be broughtunder the school’s judicial process because it is an independentorganization that contracts with the school. Also, the school’s code ofconduct can be applied only to individuals and not institutions, said Dr. JamesSimon, former longtime adviser to the Mirror.

“It’s unclear how the Mirror can even becharged,” Simon said. “I don’t know how they [theadministration] can proceed consistent with their own rules, but it does looklike they are going full-speed ahead.”

Part of the paper’s contract with the university says the universitycannot be held liable for whatever is published in the paper. Cleary said theuniversity should not expect the paper to be subjected to the university’sdisciplinary processes when the university has no legal responsibility for whatis published in the paper. The Mirror has its own internal code ofprocedure, which Cleary said he feels the paper followed.

Cleary said the charges filed against the newspaper endanger its status asan independent organization.

“If students realized they could simply go to the Dean of Studentsand say that they were offended by a column, or if the school could find someoneto do it, that would be censorship and we would no longer be independent,”Cleary wrote in an e-mail.

Students, faculty and administrators met Nov. 9 to talk about the futureof the paper. Attendees included current adviser Fran Silverman, Simon, membersof the Mirror editorial board, Associate Vice President for StudentAffairs, Dean of Students Thomas Pellegrino and Senior Vice President forAcademic Affairs Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, S.J. 

They also discussed an e-mail sentto the university community Nov. 5 by Mark Reed, vice president foradministrative and student affairs, and Fitzgerald that said theuniversity’s contract with the paper was “null and void.” Theuniversity’s contract with the Mirror stipulates that in exchangefor receiving $30,000 and free office space from the university, theMirror will produce 3,500 copies of the paper every week. Pellegrinoexplained that because the paper decided to revisit and revise its code ofprocedure, the old contract was no longer valid, and a new one would have to bedrawn.

“Basically what we’re saying was that the old contract was nolonger going to be effective because both sides were agreeing that they wantedto revise the terms of the contract, particularly the code of procedure, andthat there was going to be a time period to allow that to happen,”Pellegrino said. “So the old funding agreement is null and void to thateffect.”

An editorial in the Mirror printed Nov. 10 said members of thepaper were concerned about the future independence of the paper from theschool.

“Any sanctions against the Mirror as an organization, or itswriters, is tantamount to censorship and inhibits our status as an independentpaper,” the editorial said. “The school can’t have it bothways. We’re either independent, or just an extension of the Universitywith the administration controlling the news coming from the Mirror.”

Pellegrino said the university community should not worry about theuniversity putting a stop on newspaper production or operation.

“I think the most important things under the heading of independencethat I want to see maintained is that we a., have a student newspaper, b., thatwe have a student newspaper that’s free from prior censorship or priorapproval and c., that it’s got a really robust and good system foradvisement after publication or post-publication,” Pellegrino said. Oneidea that has been considered is the formation of an advisory board to theMirror that would offer guidance but not have any editorialcontrol.

Simon said he worried about the interference the student affairs officemight have with the journalism curriculum.

“When the student affairs office specifies adherence to even ajournalism stylebook like the AP without any expertise in this area, it’skind of a grabbing authority over issues that are supposed to be decided byprofessors,” Simon said.

The charges filed against the Mirror could impact itsability to publish material in the future. In a Nov. 8 letter to Rick DeWitt,Fairfield’s Academic Council Executive Secretary, Simon said he wasworried about the potential future ability of the administration to punish theentire newspaper for printing opinionated content.

“Campus news organizations, when they do their job, are places wherepassionate debate on the issues of the day can take place,” Simon wrote.”Under the Fairfield code, a student who writes a pro-life opinion piecethat characterizes pro-choice supporters as ‘baby killers’ couldface charges if a reader claims the language is demeaning. Worse, under thePellegrino ruling, the Mirror could be sanctioned for allowing suchstudent debate to take place.”