Articles in University of Alaska Fairbanks' student newspaper were not sexual harassment, outside review finds

ALASKA — An outside review has upheld earlier investigations that found The Sun Star, a student newspaper at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was protected by the First Amendment when it ran a satirical article about a vagina-shaped building, as well as a news story about comments on a “UAF Confessions” Facebook page.

Sine Anahita, a professor of sociology at the university, filed a university complaint of sexual harassment against The Sun Star in April 2013. She took issue with a satirical story and its accompanying graphic about a campus building being built “in the shape of a vagina” designed to honor the school’s female students. The article was printed in the paper’s April Fool’s issue, The Fun Star.

“The graphic was published as part of an April 1 edition and is ostensibly meant to be a joke,” Anahita said in her complaint, according to the university’s investigation report. “However, sexual jokes, graphic displays of women’s genitals, and use of sexual slang creates a hostile environment because it comprises sexual harassment.”

Anahita could not be reached for comment.

Lakeidra Chavis, The Sun Star’s current editor-in-chief and the author of the story about the vagina-shaped building, said these claims “trivialize” legitimate instances of sexual discrimination.

“I’m glad it’s over,” Chavis said. “I’m glad that investigators found that there was no sexual harassment, no hostile environment. But I wish it didn’t take as long.”

The university originally refused to act on the complaint, but Anahita then filed a second complaint later that month under Title IX (a law that prohibits federally funded education programs from discriminating on the basis of sex), this time against both the university for failing to investigate her sexual-harassment claims and The Sun Star for a separate article about the UAF Confessions page.

The University is obligated to investigate Title IX complaints that allege the elements of a violation, University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor Brian Rogers wrote in a letter to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which wrote asking the chancellor to end the investigation. Ultimately, administrators determined in September that there was no evidence of wrongdoing. Anahita appealed this decision, which led the university to seek an external review of its investigation.

The outside review dismissed all of Anahita’s claims.

“The bottom line is that Title IX allows a range of expression and conduct that some people will find offensive, but is nevertheless considered healthy for society, particularly in a public University and equally so where freedom of the press is involved,” wrote the attorney who reviewed the report. “In my opinion, the two … articles fall well within that range, which is what the Investigation Report concluded.”

Elika Roohi, who was The Sun Star’s editor-in-chief when the two articles were published, said she doesn’t regret running the stories — her only regret is that it took several months to resolve the complaints.

The investigation should have been handled more quickly, but the university’s response to the situation was adequate, said Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program.

“It was our position that the speech was so clearly protected by the First Amendment that any investigation done should be able to be completed very quickly,” Bonilla said.

University spokeswoman Marmian Grimes said the investigation was lengthy because it’s important to be thorough with complaints alleging sexual discrimination. Chancellor Rogers officially adopted the external reviewer’s findings in late January, she said.

All parties had until Feb. 5, to appeal the outside review, but nobody filed an appeal, Grimes said.

Though Anahita did not respond to requests for an interview, she has reacted on social media and her blog.

“University of Alaska Fairbanks has determined that sexual harassment of women in the student newspaper and online is constitutionally protected,” Anahita wrote in one blog entry. She also wrote that FIRE had “claimed victory … in the patriarchal war against women.”

Bonilla said FIRE’s only motive was to defend freedom of speech.

The Sun Star’s content “was every bit as protected as the entries Anahita makes on her blog,” Bonilla said. “I think we would look to protect Anahita’s free speech rights every bit as much.”

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.