Central Oklahoma journalism student forced to delete and apologize for blog post

OKLAHOMA — After being threatened with expulsion and forced to apologize for a blog post she wrote, a journalism student at the University of Central Oklahoma has received an apology.

Olanrewaju Suleiman wrote a post titled “An Open Letter to Obnoxious Girls: Stupidity Isn’t Cute!” in early February. In the post, Suleiman wrote about the behaviors of “three girls I know that act like complete idiots.” She criticized them for using partial words ­– “ridic” or “hilar,” for example – and for talking about “husband searching.”

“I’m pretty sure there are a good chunk of people that want to strangle you into silence,” she wrote.

Suleiman published the post, which did not name any individual students, on her personal blog hosted on Google’s blogspot.com, which she also uses for her “Blogging for Journalists” class.

After publishing the post, Suleiman said she was called in to a meeting with her professor and the chairwoman of the department of mass communications. Suleiman said she was told she had ruined her journalism career, and was threatened with expulsion until she began to cry. Then she was told she wouldn’t be expelled if she deleted the post and apologized to those who were upset by it.

Terry Clark, who teaches Blogging for Journalists, declined to comment for this story, citing student privacy. In a misconduct report about Suleiman he filed in early March, he described the February meeting.

“[Department chairwoman Rozilyn] Miller and Dr. Clark visited with Ms. Suleiman, instructing her to apologize to the affected students, and to remove the post,” he wrote. “She was told another incident could have her removed from the university.”

Miller also declined to comment and directed questions to a university spokeswoman, Adrienne Nobles. Nobles said she “cannot confirm that such an event occurred” and declined to comment “on any ongoing matter.”

Suleiman said that after the meeting she took the post down and apologized, but not because she felt she did anything wrong. The post was meant to be a “lighthearted joke,” she said.

“I’m not ashamed of what I wrote,” Suleiman said. “If my future employer saw that, that would be OK with me.”

Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, said a school would, at a minimum, “have to show a substantial disruption of school activity” to justify censoring student speech.

“I can’t imagine how hurting the feelings of your classmates would rise to that level,” LoMonte said. “Especially at a college when you’re dealing with adults.”

On March 5, Clark filed the misconduct report in response to an alleged second incident, writing that Suleiman’s actions had caused disruptions to his class twice this semester and had been “perceived as threatening” by other students.

“Today when I came to class one of the affected students [redacted] was in tears and said she couldn’t go to class,” Clark wrote. “She had just learned from another student that during class Feb. 28, Ms. Suleiman had been observed surreptitiously taking photos of [redacted] and two others with her phone.”

Suleiman said she did not take any photographs of the students, but was told she could not come back to class until the situation was resolved. Clark cancelled the following class period.

In the days and weeks after the post was published, some offended students took to Twitter to air their dismay with the blog post and seemingly with Suleiman, though she was not named.

“You want to call me stupid, dim-witted and an airhead?” one tweeted. “Talk to my 3.0 GPA and let’s see how far your argument goes.”

Later she tweeted, “I can’t tell if you’re asking for it or just really stupid…”

Another tweeted, “People underestimate the power of the written word. Publicly published words are not erasable. You can’t take that back. #keepinmind”

Suleiman said she sees no difference between their remarks and her own, yet hers were censored.

“Is there a difference between Twitter and blogging?” she said. “Twitter is just microblogging, isn’t it?

After Clark filed the misconduct report against Suleiman, she met with Adrienne Martinez, director of student conduct. Suleiman said Martinez found her “not responsible” for the allegations in Clark’s report and apologized for the situation. An arrangement was worked out so that Suleiman no longer has to attend Clark’s class but can finish her coursework.

Martinez declined to comment for this story, directing inquiries to Nobles.

Suleiman filed her own complaint against the students last week for harassment and bullying. It’s not clear whether the other students have or will be punished for their tweets.

LoMonte said for speech to be considered harassment and lose its First Amendment protection, it would have to be proven to be “severe and persistent.”

Though Suleiman feels things have worked out, she said the situation, “sends a bad message to future journalists who want to come to UCO for journalism.”

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.