Harassment Complaints Threaten Future of The Mirror
What started as an impromptu protest has evolved into a tug of war between University policy and freedom of expression.
Although Mirror editors feel they were not in violation of their contract with the University, Dean of Students Tom Pellegrino requested in a meeting on Monday that The Mirror appear before a student conduct board to evaluate if the organization was in violation of the University harassment policy.
Read what other newspapers/blogs had to say about the He Said article:
The meeting addressed claims from four students — Bradley Fay, Shawne Lomauro, Jen Martin and Kenni Nwajagu — that they were personally harassed by The Mirror’s printing of offensive language in the Oct. 1 “He Said” column.
The meeting was attended by Dean Pellegrino, The Mirror faculty adviser Prof. Fran Silverman, and members of the editorial staff.
The problem is that the harassment policy is not included in the funding agreement mutually agreed upon by The Mirror and Pellegrino’s office. While some feel that the student newspaper should be held to the University’s student standard, editors and advisers of The Mirror claim that subjecting an independent organization to any judicial or disciplinary action impedes on their ability to produce a student-run, non-biased publication.
“We take pride in being an independent news organization, that’s part of the campus community, and we feel that we need to remain independent to create an unbiased paper for students and to truly learn from the experiences we have, like this one,” Cleary stated in the meeting.
In The Mirror’s opinion, remaining independent would entail exceptions to policies in the student handbook to appropriately recognize the paper’s position as an external, independent company contracted by the University.
They claim that including an independent organization under individual student policy fails to recognize The Mirror’s independence, as the publication is listed as an independent organization in the student handbook.
Pellegrino first suggested mediation between the students who filed the harassment claims and The Mirror.
“Mediation was declined [by the students who filed claims],” Pellegrino said.
“Under our harassment policy, a complaint gets filed and comes to my office, and the policy is prescriptive as to what I need to do with those complaints … That doesn’t speak to the issue of whether I think it’s appropriate or not appropriate to set up an advisory board. As I read the policy, I don’t have the discretion to send it somewhere else. And unless the students withdraw those complaints, they have a right to have those complaints processed in a timely fashion,” Pellegrino added.
Advisement for The Mirror
One of Pellegrino’s suggestions to help remedy the situation is the creation of a advisory board for The Mirror. The advisory board would be composed of students, faculty, staff, and even lawyers concerned with freedom of expression issues, to name a few. Pellegrino envisions that the advisory board would review every issue, and insists that the board would in no way be in favor of prior censorship.
While The Mirror feels its advisement under Prof. Silverman (and previously under Dr. James Simon) has been sufficient, they are willing to add an advisory board if it is diverse, unbiased, approved by the editors, and unable to remove editors or writers from their positions, according to a letter from Cleary to Pellegrino in response to his requests to re-evaluate advisement structure.
Still, concern remains that coupling the creation of an advisory board with the request for The Mirror to appear before a student conduct board is counter-productive. An advisory board would be sufficient to guarantee common decency in The Mirror while still allowing the publication to remain independent, insists Silverman.
“Bringing a newspaper before a student conduct board is that same slippery slope of how students could quickly catch on to this being a tactic, that they find something in the paper they don’t agree with,” said Silverman.
“What if someone ran a comment about anti-abortion or gay marriage and people take offense. They could say that constituted hate speech against a certain group,” she said.
“The newspaper’s function is to provide robust debate within the confines of common decency, which they’re working on right now,” Silverman added.
Silverman also added that from experience, the typical role of an advisory board is not constant, as Pellegrino is suggesting. It is generally called to hear complaints about content placed to the paper, and that allowing a constant advisory board would be a huge concession for The Mirror.
If this were to take place, both she and the editorial staff find a student conduct hearing unnecessary. Decisions to be made will be based on policy and contract.
“Let’s first keep in mind that we’re on a private campus, not a public campus. We’re not talking about Constitutional protections. We’re talking about protections that we come to an agreement by contract, by policy … Freedom of expression has some more qualifications to it, but it’s basically what we wanted to make of it as a University,” said Pellegrino.
“The four students have expressed to me that they’re looking to the University to make a determination as to whether the harassment policy was violated. The student conduct board is the mechanism of the University,” he added.
The Mirror Funding Agreement
However, Simmons noted that the mutual funding agreement between The Mirror and the University suggests that this would not be the correct course of action.
“Our funding agreement also has language that excludes the University from being liable for anything we print, but if they’re able to come in and sanction us for something we print, aren’t you taking some of that responsibility?” Simmons asked.
The funding agreement says, “By this agreement, The Mirror releases Fairfield University from any claims or suits brought against it by any third parties arising out of its operations as a newspaper and/or its use of Fairfield University premises.”
Given that Pellegrino stated that the student conduct board would be a “mechanism of the University,” subjecting the organization to a student conduct board may be seen as both unnecessary and in violation of this agreement.
Pellegrino said he is in the tough position of trying to honor the concerns of two opposing groups. Although the students who filed the claims share similar views, Jen Martin ‘10 says that her decision to file the claim was an individual decision.
“I would like The Mirror to be held accountable for a breach of University policy,” said Martin.
“Just as an independent newspaper has first amendment rights, so do individuals. We send them to conduct boards as well for breach of the very same policy. I do not want The Mirror to lose its independence as an organization. After many talks with administration, it is clear that this is no one’s intention,” continued Martin.
“The Mirror is published as ‘The Independent Student Newspaper of Fairfield University.’ What does it say about and do for our school if we start making exceptions to our policy?” she added.
The other three students who filed claims were unable to be reached for comment.
University Announcement Called Into Question
Also addressed in Monday’s meeting was the shared feeling by the editorial staff that a public relations mistake has been made on behalf of the Dean of Students Office. A University-wide e-mail was sent on Nov. 5 that discussed the future of The Mirror in terms of both the funding agreement and the harassment policy. Some felt the wording was too vague for a reader not involved in the situation.
The message stated, “As the University signatory on that agreement, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students, Dr. Thomas Pellegrino, advised The Mirror in writing that the content contained in various sections of the Coffee Break page were in violation of the ethical and procedural guidelines of the current funding agreement. As such, the current funding agreement is null and void.”
However, as The Mirror had agreed to submit revisions regarding the Code of Procedure (especially for the Coffee Break section), a public message articulating monitoring of content by the editorial staff, and an evaluation of advisement procedures by Nov. 9, the Nov. 5 University message seemed to the editors both premature and misleading of the current situation.
Next Steps for The Mirror
The Mirror has met the requests of Pellegrino in assessing many procedural aspects of the publication, as outlined in Cleary’s response letter to Pellegrino. Cleary hopes that the campus community recognizes the unprecedented steps The Mirror has made to remedy its mistakes.
“I think the Code of Procedure is on the Web site. I would hope that people would know that we have that, that we follow this code of procedure, and we live by that code. Now we saw that there were holes in the code, we want to go back and fix those holes on our own, and make sure that instances like these don’t happen again,” said Cleary.
As The Mirror has never had claims officially filed against them in this manner, decisions made on this issue will be monumental for the University in determining just how independent an independent newspaper can really be in a private Jesuit institution.