Photo Illustration by Dan Leitao

Photo Illustration by Dan Leitao

Following mediation between complainants and The Mirror staff in response to September’s “He Said” controversy, concerns over journalistic independence from internal and external sources still linger despite the dropping of harassment charges against the publication.

After four students filed harassment charges against The Mirror for allegedly being in violation of the harassment/equal education policy on page 46 of the student handbook, decisions on the issue have been in administrative limbo. According to Dean of Students Tom Pellegrino, the matter is unprecedented, and should be dealt with in accordance to University policy on harassment charges.

The language of the harassment policy, however, only applies enforcement of the policy to an individual or an “unidentified perpetrator.” As The Mirror is neither, both sides went back and forth on the proper handling of the situation.

If bound to University policy, The Mirror would have had to appear before a student conduct board, which would decide if the publication was indeed in violation of the policy. Since the charges have been dropped, this is no longer an issue. What the newspaper now faces is the decision of whether or not they will be required to appear before a post-publication advisory board after the distribution of each issue, an action that some find problematic given that it could compromise both independence and academically oriented faculty involvement.

Petition to Support The Mirror

James Simon, chair of the English Department and long-time former adviser of The Mirror, released a petition to Fairfield’s Academic Council on Monday in a last-minute attempt to preserve The Mirror’s academic and journalistic integrity by having the issue placed under Academic rather than Student Affairs.

The petition comes as a response to Pellegrino’s Nov. 5 email to Simon and other relevant individuals concerning the handling of the complaints, which only invites the Academic and University Councils to submit opinions to potentially aid in a student conduct board’s decision concerning The Mirror.

“I want to encourage the Academic Council to act on Dean Pellegrino’s offer before the hearing starts on the complaints. The memo from the dean invites comment only from these two handbook committees, not from other actors such as faculty advisers to the Mirror who might have relevant information to share,” wrote Simon to the Council.

Simon’s petition outlines several reasons why action by the University should not be taken against The Mirror. First, Simon writes, as The Mirror is a crucial learning component of the journalism component of the English Department, any judicial action not only would result in a loss of independence but also in a loss of academic control of curriculum for faculty members. Also, Simon claims that the language of the harassment policy only applies to individual students or unidentified perpetrators, and not organizations as a whole.

Simon’s final two arguments involve the paper’s independence. He cites that when rapper Ludicrous performed on campus, he “repeatedly referred to women in a demeaning manner,”and Simon questioned whether internal judicial action would be taken if a student filed harassment claims in response to this, or to any independent organization or individual’s words and actions (an angry patron at a Fairfield sporting event, or a Sodexho worker, for instance).

“The harassment policy can no more be used against an independent activity here as it could be against other independent actors who appear on campus,” Simon writes.

Finally, Simon requests that the Academic Council look at the language of the harassment policy and consider its revision with regards to student media. He feels that the language is not inclusive enough to deal with and also to protect the independence of a student media organization.

“Campus news organizations, when they do their job, are places where passionate debate on the issues of the day can take place. Under the Fairfield code, a student who writes a pro-life opinion piece that characterizes pro-choice supporters as ‘baby killers’ could face charges if a reader claims the language is demeaning,” writes Simon.

“Worse, under the Pellegrino ruling, the Mirror could be sanctioned for allowing such student debate to take place. It is not hard to think of many more such potential clashes: a student making a Zionist argument that pro-Palestine readers say demeans or embarrasses them. A candidate for FUSA president who criticizes the incumbent; the incumbent, instead of entering into a debate, cites the harassment process and says the charges are demeaning or embarrassing,” he writes.

Dean Pellegrino’s Response

In response to this petition, Pellegrino released a statement to the Academic and University Councils and to FUSA reiterating the belief of a need for an Academic Advisory Board to review The Mirror post-publication. Both parties share a belief that revision of the harassment policy is necessary. What they are currently divided over is the issue of advisement.

The school newspaper is not granted immunity from University policy simply by the fact that it is a newspaper,” wrote Pellegrino in this Dec. 7 document.

“Yet, we recognize that the newspaper, like other media, presents an invaluable opportunity for learning and that often times presents itself in the form of mistakes – sometimes benign, sometimes significant in nature. It is precisely in this regard that we recognize there are critical roles to be played by individuals in both the academic as well as student affairs divisions with respect to the paper,” writes Pellegrino.

Further, Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J., Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, also supports the creation of an advisory board, with a statement published in Pellegrino’s address:

I would welcome this additional educational support for our students as they exercise their rights and responsibilities as independent journalists within and for the Fairfield University community,” Fitzgerald said.

Outside Support for The Mirror

Opposition to this potential action has come from more sources than just Dr. Simon.

In a letter addressed to Rev. Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., President of Fairfield University, the College Media Advisers board of directors supported The Mirror in its handling of the situation, which included a formal apology, and a revision of its code of procedure to deal directly with the Coffee Break section in question.

Sally E. Turner, President of the College Media Advisers, explained that the paper’s course of action was consistent with that of other independent college and professional news publications.

“We would ask that calmer, more objective heads prevail and bring closure to an unfortunate situation that should never have extended past the newspaper editors’ apology and pledge to avoid such mistakes in the future,” Turner writes. “Those are products of learning — the promise afforded by the university for all who come as students and professors.”

FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has taken a firmer approach in their statement to President von Arx. In his Dec. 4 letter to the Office of the President on behalf of FIRE, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy William Creeley states that by taking action against The Mirror, “Fairfield will trivialize actual harassment and teach students an unfortunate and illiberal lesson: namely, that the proper way to react to speech with which one disagrees is by reporting it to authorities for official punishment and censorship.”

“Having received their diplomas and entered the proverbial ‘real world,’ however, Fairfield students will be disappointed to realize that the illusory ‘right not to be offended’ that Fairfield seems intent on providing them in this instance does not exist,” Creeley continues.

FIRE has requested a response on the matter by Dec. 11, and has expressed commitment “to using all of our resources to oppose the punishment of The Mirror or any other campus publication punished for engaging in protected expression.

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