University of Alaska Fairbanks student newspaper under investigation following sexual harassment claims

ALASKA — The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ investigation of the student newspaper, The Sun Star, is undergoing outside review following a complaint that the newspaper is guilty of sexual harassment.

The first article to ignite the controversy was a satire in the paper’s April Fool’s 2013 issue that announced the construction of a “building in the shape of a vagina” in honor of the school’s 59 percent female demographic. The article was meant to satirize the proliferation of “penis-shaped” buildings, reporter Lakeidra Chavis said.

“Personally, I thought it was funny,” Chavis said. “It’s not meant to be factual.”

But Sine Anahita, coordinator of the university’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, said the article and its accompanying graphic constituted sexual harassment and filed a complaint. Anahita declined to comment.

“Nearly every faculty member and staff member I have talked with finds the graphic objectionable,” she wrote in her complaint, according to the final investigation report. “The publication of the graphic also reproduces the ‘rape culture’ that trivializes the forced and non-consensual display and penetration of women’s bodies.”

UAF’s Diversity and Equal Opportunity director Mae Marsh investigated but determined that the story did not create a hostile environment. She noted that the graphic came from a PG-13 movie.

“I have determined that the alleged act(s) of discrimination are constitutionally protected and also that they do not meet the definition of sexual harassment,” Marsh wrote in her response, which was included in the final investigation report of a second investigator, Jennifer McConnel.

McConnel, the university system’s Labor Employee Relations Coordinator, was brought in to investigate a second complaint by the same professor a few days later.

This time the offending piece was a Sun Star article that reported on hate speech in the UAF Confessions Facebook page. Anahita alleged the article created a hostile environment by publishing insults from students to other students.

UAF students “worried that they were going to be next in the Sun Star and on the UAF Confessions Facebook page then reprinted in the Sun Star,” the investigation report notes. “Anahita observed that it caused anxiety when the next Sun Star publication came out.”

Chavis responded that the paper hadn’t broken any laws by publishing screenshots of the page. “It was a public Facebook page,” she said. “People should be aware of what they’re posting on social media.”

Like Marsh, McConnel found no evidence of wrongdoing, but Anahita appealed her decision. The investigation is now being reexamined for accuracy and legality, and Chavis said she has been contacted again for more testimony.

University spokeswoman Marmian Grimes said this review would be the end of the university’s investigation into the issue, though she couldn’t comment on the case itself.

“The process is meant to be confidential,” she said. “We don’t want to have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to report things.”

Anahita also accused The Sun Star of violating Title IX, a federal law designed to prevent sexual discrimination in schools. The Sun Star can not be held accountable under Title IX because it regulates only an “educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”=”#comp000051920b3b00000002796f66″>

Chavis said it has been stressful for the paper to be under investigation for nearly eight months, and she said she didn’t know when the latest investigation would end or what the consequences would be if the Sun Star were found responsible.

“If this is the price of Journalism, the price of reporting the truth, of writing satire, of freedom of speech, then it is time to re-evaluate our current expectations… of the role of media,” she wrote in a September editorial. “If the price of students voicing their opinions to the dismay of faculty and staff is a limit to our educational rights, it is time for the system to reevaluate its role as a university.”

By Samantha Sunne, SPLC staff writer. Contact Sunne by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.

Editor’s note: Updated 11/27/13 to note that when reached, Anahita declined to comment.