Op-ed in Wesleyan Argus sparks outrage, petition to defund newspaper

CONNECTICUT — When student Bryan Stascavage wrote an opinion piece in Wesleyan University’s newspaper, The Argus, criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement, he expected it to get attention. He didn’t expect the ensuing onslaught of verbal harassment, campus backlash and a push to defund the newspaper.

“I had intentionally written it to touch on some sensitive areas,” Stascavage said of his Sept. 14 column. “And the reason that I did that is I’m not 100 percent certain on my own views. I was hoping to generate feedback.”

But within the next few days, “all hell had broken loose,” he said. Students flocked to anonymous social media app Yik Yak to bash the article, he said, with many comments urging students to dispose of copies of the Argus. By Stascavage’s estimation, about 500 copies of the newspaper’s 1,000-copy print run have been intentionally thrown away in protest of the article. (The Student Press Law Center offers several resources to deal with newspaper theft.)

Students also drafted a petition with more than 150 signatures seeking to de-fund the Argus until a list of demands has been met. Activists presented the petition to the Wesleyan Student Assembly, which controls the newspaper’s budget. The group will discuss the petition at a town hall meeting on Sunday.

“The undersigned agree to boycott the Argus, recognizing that the paper has historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body,” the petition said. “Most specifically, it neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future.”

In addition to defunding the Argus, the petition asks for more diversity efforts, including mandatory social-justice and diversity training each semester, active recruitment and advertisement for minority contributors, a monthly report on the paper’s allocation of funds and leadership structure, and a dedicated space for “marginalized groups/voices” that will be left blank if there are no submissions. The activists also want work-study or course credit positions at the paper.

The Argus issued an editorial on Sept. 17 in response to the backlash, apologizing for the “distress this piece caused the student body” — but co-editor-in-chief Rebecca Brill emphasized in an interview that the newspaper stands by its decision to publish the opinion piece. The editorial wasn’t meant to apologize for publishing it, she said.

“I see the free speech issue as separate from the diversity and representation issue,” Brill said, noting that the Argus staff is predominantly white. She said the newspaper is committed to increasing diversity, though she said creating work-study positions at the paper isn’t financially feasible.

“We have begun to make efforts toward making the newspaper a safe space for the student of color community and plan to continue them with greater force,” the editorial said. It also said the staff plans to print a “Black Out” issue produced by students of color, but Brill said the campaign to defund the newspaper may slow down the publication of such an issue.

Stascavage’s column, entitled “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think,” called for an examination of the movement and questioned its cohesiveness as an organization. It also criticized some controversial incidents involving BLM activists, such as a Minnesota rally in August where marchers chanted about killing “pigs.”

“It boils down to this for me: If vilification and denigration of the police force continues to be a significant portion of Black Lives Matter’s message, then I will not support the movement, I cannot support the movement,” Stascavage wrote in the piece. “And many Americans feel the same. I should repeat, I do support many of the efforts by the more moderate activists.”

Stascavage said he was shocked when he read the comments on his column.

“It wasn’t constructive. It was (that) I’m racist, I should never publish again,” he said. “That hate got bigger and bigger and it started to move away from the article and toward the newspaper itself.”

The column currently has more than 100 comments, but confrontations soon began to move beyond the anonymous veil of the Internet and mobile apps and into hostile interactions in public.

Stascavage said he has heard students mutter “racist” at him and was confronted by a young woman in a cafe who shouted at him about the article at length — an incident so heated that he said a classmate had 911 dialed on his phone at the time, ready to call. He also noted an online comment on the article that referred to people taking his photo and posting it on private forums, which he said he found disturbing but not a “concrete threat.”

Administrators have supported the newspaper and Stascavage, with leaders reaching out to him personally. Wesleyan President Michael Roth wrote a blog post supporting the newspaper’s right to free speech.

“Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable,” Roth said in the post. “As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended.”

The newspaper is funded by student fees, but acts on a largely independent basis free of administrator interference, Stascavage said.

Overall, Brill said she agrees with the sentiment that the Argus is not diverse enough, but defunding it is not a viable solution. She said she thinks the Argus’ lack of diversity is a separate issue from censorship and free speech.

“I would like to work with the student government and the writers of the petition to find a way to get together to meet some of those goals,” she said.

Stascavage said the editors-in-chief — facing mounting pressure from student activists who opposed the article — published the apology editorial without consulting him first, but that they ultimately stood by their decision to publish it.

“When they realized I wasn’t backing down and the administration had their back, they got more confidence and a renewed sense of justice,” he said.

He added that they told him to check his facts more carefully, but that they did not mention specific factual errors. Brill said the statistics on numbers of police killings were flawed.

But Stascavage is concerned that some of these efforts to foster diversity will erode free speech. The backlash is symptomatic of the chilling effects of pervasive “political correctness” and sensitivity to opposing or offensive views at universities and elsewhere, he said. He wrote a column about the incident in the conservative student news site The College Fix, referring to this phenomenon as “cultural terraforming.”

“People can disagree with me all day,” he said. “I’m perfectly fine with that. The attempt to try and take away my voice, that’s what’s really concerning.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at (202) 974-6317 or by email.