Student satire publication lost funding, put on probation after article on sexual harassment

MICHIGAN — A student comedy publication has been slapped with harsh and possibly illegal disciplinary measures after satirizing issues of sexual harassment and assault.

In November, the Daily Bull’s editor-in-chief, Rico Bastian, wrote an article, “Sexually Harassed Man Pretty Okay with Situation,” that describes a male student receiving “unwelcomed sexual contact from members of the opposite sex, all of which he later looked back on with feelings of complacency.”

Bastian and the rest of the Daily Bull editorial staff at Michigan Technological University thought the premise was comical, but it was aimed at getting people talking “about how people don’t look at male sexual assault as a serious issue,” said managing editor Mike Jarasz.

Bastian added that he also wanted to make the point that “it’s considered more acceptable” for an attractive person to sexually harass someone. (The satirical article ends with the male student saying he felt violated and wanted to file a formal complaint after receiving an overtly sexual look and gesture from a “kinda ugly” woman — the part of the article cited as most objectionable.)

In the same issue, there was a list of “signs that she wants the D,” including she “only screams a little” and she “used the less irritating pepper spray.”

That list is part of a regular feature called the Pile, which is supposed to be outrageous and not meant to be taken seriously, Bastian said.

But soon after the issue hit the racks, Les Cook, the university’s vice president for student affairs, sent out a campus-wide email denouncing the article and as, Jarasz said, claiming the Daily Bull was “advocating criminal activity on campus.” Cook was out of the office traveling on Monday and Tuesday and did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s multiple email requests for comment.

The papers then flew off the racks as students grabbed copies to see the offending article — and it became a “really big deal,” Jarasz said.

The university’s office of academic and community conduct placed the Daily Bull on probation for two years — meaning if there’s another problematic article, the Bull could be removed as a student publication — and issued sanctions requiring staffers to take a cultural sensitivity course. The Daily Bull’s adviser stepped down. The student government voted to freeze the Bull’s funding until staffers attended a Title IX training course. The Daily Bull retracted the story and published an apology.

The Daily Bull had been slated to receive $2,400 in funding from the student government for the 2015-16 school year. Nathan Peterson, student government president, said he was unable to comment due to final exams.

Cook told the Daily Mining Gazette that the university was legally required by federal Title IX statutes to act in cases of sexual discrimination or harassment.

“(The Constitution) doesn’t supersede [Title IX],” he told the paper. “Title IX is a federal compliance policy. Those policies supersede anything else.”

But Adam Goldstein, the SPLC’s attorney advocate, said schools can’t use an administrative regulation as an exception to the First Amendment.

Title IX is a federal policy to create and preserve educational opportunities for all students, regardless of gender. Goldstein said it is highly unlikely that a publication would be able to limit a student’s educational opportunities. And in the Daily Bull’s case, he said, administration cannot “twist any federal regulation, including Title IX, to make that [speech] punishable.”

Student governments are also not permitted to withdraw funding in retaliation for content, he said.

The Daily Bull is not going to fight the university’s discipline, Bastian said. They are working to set up training for next semester.

“I guess it couldn’t hurt for the writers to undergo some training with something like this,” he said. “We’re not trying to make them stay away from any particular topic. I believe that everything should be fair play. … [But] I’ll be a little more conscious in the future.”

The Daily Bull, which publishes three times a week, has continued its normal printing schedule since the controversy, using revenue from advertising, which is running low, Jarasz said. The paper has gotten a lot of support from alumni and students, he said.

“Unfortunately, they were saying there was a culture of hyper-sensitivity on our campus and around the country,” he said. Jarasz said the Daily Bull staff has mostly tried to stay away satirizing sensitive issues of sexual assault — not because he doesn’t think it could be portrayed comedically, but because he doesn’t want to stir up controversy.

Bastian said he thinks about the current climate on college campuses when writing comedy, but “sometimes you gotta stretch the boundaries a little bit. There will be pushback,” he said, adding that he’s okay with people being angry with his comedy.

But this time, “people were hurt by it,” he said. “As a writer of comedy, that’s never something I want.”

In the publication’s apology the next issue, Jarasz wrote that the article “does not represent the ideals of the Daily Bull.”

“Sexual harassment and assault is a very real and serious issue, as such it is not something that is appropriate to portray satirically,” he wrote, adding that the publication reworked its procedures to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

“The Daily Bull always strives to be a light-hearted satirical publication, our writers and contributors are all students, each with their own unique sense of humor,” Jarasz wrote. “With this in mind, anyone could reasonably expect that we don’t always hit the mark, and occasionally can cross the line.”

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.

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