College Media Association censures private Catholic university for hobbling student newspaper

NEW JERSEY — Saint Peter’s University, a private Jesuit institution in Jersey City, is facing censure by the College Media Association for violating its student journalists’ rights by shuttering the newspaper.

CMA, an organization that works with college media and their advisers, announced the censure Sept. 6 following its investigation into a complaint from the Saint Peter’s newspaper, The Pauw Wow. The paper’s faculty adviser, Ernabel Demillo, was removed from her post and its distribution was halted by the university after a sex- and love-themed issue for Valentine’s Day in February.

The letter of censure, sent to university President Eugene J. Cornacchia, raises concerns about the university’s handling of Demillo’s removal and outlines specific findings by the organization’s First Amendment Advocacy Committee. The committee uncovered multiple issues with Saint Peter’s interference in, and blockading of, the newspaper’s ability to publish, and expressed concern that the university’s present environment is not favorable for student journalism.

CMA’s investigation found that Saint Peter’s had demanded an apology from the paper’s students and adviser for the issue’s content, which featured topics ranging from defining consent, to the social discomfort around discussing certain sex acts and pornography’s role in intimate relationships. First Amendment Advocacy Committee Chair Christopher Evans called the demand “intimidating” and wrote that it demonstrated that the provost was more interested in the apology than in the students’ learning experience or in meaningful conversation.

The intimidation implied by the university’s demand hit full force with Demillo’s removal, the committee said, deeming the act a form of apparent retaliation in response to the issue’s content and triggering the investigation into Saint Peter’s and the Pauw Wow.

The events that followed the issue’s publication began, Demillo said, when she received an email from Provost Gerard O’Sullivan at 3:38 p.m. the day after the issue was published. In that email, O’Sullivan wrote, “To say that I’m merely disappointed would be an understatement,” and called the issue “degrading of human intimacy” and a “betrayal of the University’s mission,” she said.

The university said its issues with the paper stemmed from the Pauw Wow’s outdated governing documents. Students were questioned about the documents on Feb. 18, prompting them to begin the process of updating the organization’s paperwork.

Olivia Monahan, who was the Pauw Wow’s managing editor at the time, said she wasn’t aware the organization had a constitution — she only heard about it after Saint Peter’s Provost, Gerard O’Sullivan, asked her where it was.

“I asked other organizations when their documents were last updated and they said ‘I don’t know,’” she said. “It’s very clear they’re picking apart little things to shut us down.”

One week later, on Feb. 25, Monahan, Demillo and co-editors in chief, Jenna Carbin and Diamond Reid sat down for a meeting with O’Sullivan and Rocco Danzi, a Jesuit chaplain and head of campus ministry for Saint Peter’s.

“It was easily one of the worst conversations I’ve ever had in my life,” Monahan said. “The entire meeting was basically the provost speaking directly to our adviser about us and telling her he felt we were misguided, led down the wrong path, we would never get hired anywhere and we weren’t good people.”

During the meeting, O’Sullivan told Demillo to step down from her position before asking the students and Danzi to leave the room. Demillo said O’Sullivan apologized to her after the students left, telling her he had asked her to step down because he wanted her to run the multimedia lab and studio Saint Peter’s now operates — a position Demillo now holds. Since the meeting, neither Monahan nor Demillo say they have heard from O’Sullivan.

Saint Peter’s moves to interfere with the paper’s operations culminated with the university’s obstruction of the Pauw Wow’s publishing in March. According to the report, university administration instructed the press not to print any further issues of the Pauw Wow until told otherwise.

The students were not informed of the cancellation, prompting the CMA to charge the university with blatant censorship — a form of restraint the organization’s representatives found was proof “…that student opinion and meaningful conversation is not valued at Saint Peter’s at this time.”

Monahan, who was to be the Pauw Wow’s incoming editor-in-chief, called the print cancellation “shady” and said she was appalled that no one from the university or its student activities board said anything to the paper’s staff prior to the halt on publishing. Monahan said most of the staff was at a CMA conference in New York when she received an email informing her the press had been banned from printing the paper.

“It was so odd because our newsroom sits on the same floor as Student Activities,” she said. “I can look into their office from our newsroom; they really could have just come in and told us.”

And on April 16, the students were told they could not publish again until the documents had been updated, with changes approved by the student government and the documents adhering to CMA standards. The budget of the paper was then frozen, and the election of the staff’s incoming editors was voided with the university’s move effectively placing the student government in a position of power over the student paper and its right to publish — a position that, even at a private institution, CMA found unacceptable.

“Even though students (at private universities) don’t have (legally protected) First Amendment rights, we believe that they should,” Kelley Callaway, president of CMA, said.

University administration, according to the investigation, had referenced the CMA Code of Ethical Behavior in multiple conversations concerning the outdated documents. The code, which states, “In private institutions, media advisers should aid in developing governing documents and working with administrative guidelines which foster a free and open atmosphere for students involved in campus media work…” only represents part of CMA’s mission for college media — with emphasis on “a free and open atmosphere for students” being paramount.

Saint Peter’s, the review said, chose to ignore the spirit of the code, which states, “Student media must be free from all forms of external interference designed to regulate its content, including confiscation of its products or broadcasts; suspension of publication or transmission; academic personal or budgetary sanctions; arbitrary removal of staff members or faculty; or threats to the existence of student publications or broadcast outlets.”

Callaway said Saint Peter’s oversight of the code’s guiding principles was a violation of the code itself, which is meant to act as a set of standards ensuring freedom of expression on school campuses.

In another measure aimed at university intervention in the paper’s business, Saint Peter’s insisted that Dean of Students Anthony Skevakis approve the makeup of the paper’s editorial board by adding two professionals to that board. Giving university administration the ability to approve the makeup of the editorial board and the power to appoint two non-students to work on the paper, CMA wrote, meant the university was invoking prior review — a process that could create a chilling effect on the press and interfere with the ability to publish freely.

“I hope that they realize that practicing prior review is not good journalism. It constrains us from writing about the things we care about,” Monahan said.

Because Saint Peter’s is a private, religiously affiliated university, it is not bound by the First Amendment. The censure carries only symbolic force. For Callaway, the censure’s impact will depend on how the university intends to take it.

A notice of censure, she said, might make it harder for the institution to hire faculty — particularly in journalism. Callaway referenced another institution that took three years to hire a new journalism professor during its censure.

“The question is, ‘do you want to be a university known for trampling student rights?’” she said.

For CMA, all student media must be able to work independently, without administrative or governmental interference. To lift the censure, Callaway said, Saint Peter’s would need to get rid of the stipulation requiring two professionals be appointed to the newspaper’s board and produce a written agreement promising that the university would never again block the paper from printing.

Monahan is hopeful the paper will resume publication in October, and according to a statement from Saint Peter’s, the university is expected to do so. But the Pauw Wow will see changes if and when the publication resumes next month.

Angeline Boyer, a spokesperson for Saint Peter’s, wrote in a statement that the Pauw Wow staff can expect improved technology “to support the digital version of the publication,” an additional faculty adviser and a new publishing press “that will offer an enriched publication style and format.” Boyer said the university also looks to offer a pilot program with the Pauw Wow that will give contributing students a yet-unspecified form of academic credit.

“The Pauw Wow is an important part of the University, and will continue to be a student activity that is supported by the University,” she wrote. “… The University expects that these improved resources will increase Pauw Wow student participation, and enhance the student journalism experience.”

While Monahan said she has discussed these changes with university administration, Saint Peter’s has not yet acted on or confirmed any such provisions. The university, she said, proposed new equipment, a new printer and the possibility of academic credit during the spring 2016 semester. But after receiving quotes from Monahan for the paper’s expenses and devising a contract for a new printing company with Demillo, Saint Peter’s continues to draw out the process with no foreseeable end.

“[Saint Peter’s] has told us about [these proposals], but whether or not it’s actually going to happen is a mystery to us all,” Monahan said.

And while Saint Peter’s has set a tentative start date for the Pauw Wow to resume publication, it’s unclear whether the paper will do so under the auspices of two new university-chosen professionals serving on staff in supervisory roles traditionally held by students. Saint Peter’s would not respond to multiple phone and email requests for comment on the subject by the time of publishing.

What is clear is that the Pauw Wow will receive a new adviser who has replaced Demillo — not an additional adviser, as the statement suggests — and will resume publication after months of active institutional censorship to a perhaps unfamiliar media climate.

“Even without these two professional members, I think these students are going to be more prone to censor themselves and are not going to want to explore riskier topics under this environment,” Callaway said. “My theory is that these students won’t even try to do riskier things and be the watchdog of their university that looks out for the interests of these students at the university.”

And according to the university’s Speaker and Expression Policy in accordance with the institution’s Mission Statement, “Saint Peter’s University is committed to discourse intended to seek truth and recognizes its responsibility to provide a forum for the free expression of ideas in a democracy.”

For free speech advocates, a university advertising itself as a bastion of free expression should be held to the standards they have established for themselves. While private institutions are not bound by First Amendment dictum, they are still legally required to fulfill promises set forth in institutional documents or promotional materials.

Though private ecclesiastic universities may place religious commitments over the importance of free expression, the issue at play for Saint Peter’s hinged on the Pauw Wow’s outmoded documents, a university statement said.

“A reorganization committee is currently working on updating all of these documents, with input from the SGA, in order to ensure that the publication can operate in the future in accordance with University guidelines. At this time, the committee is working towards the fall 2016 semester to begin publishing again,” the statement read.

But in the months following the Pauw Wow’s publishing blockade, the paper’s social media accounts and online issues have lain dormant. The paper’s Twitter account shows the last post was a retweet on April 18, the last Facebook post was a sponsored advertisement in December and the last issue uploaded to the Pauw Wow’s Issuu account was the January 2016 edition. In this time, Demillo said, students on staff have been robbed of both opportunities to learn and to report on the university, good and bad.

“Truly a student newspaper is not under the adviser’s control,” she said. “A newspaper really belongs to the students. I’m hoping the people there now working with [Saint Peter’s] provosts, deans and student affairs — when they try to figure this out and publish a newspaper — I hope they ultimately come to the realization that the students need to be the ones running the newspaper.”

Saint Peter’s acknowledged receipt of the censure stating, “Saint Peter’s University is aware of a ‘censure’ letter that was received from an advocate group named the College Media Association, setting forth its decision to censure the University based upon a perceived violation of the Association’s own guidelines,” but has not since contacted CMA following the censure, according to Callaway.

Callaway said the last acknowledgement she received from Cornacchia was a notice that he was forwarding the censure to the university’s legal counsel.

SPLC staff writer Mary Tyler March can be reached by email or (202) 478-1926.

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