On February 10, The Pauw Wow published a sex and love-themed issue. The student newspaper at Saint Peter’s University, a Jesuit school in Jersey City, wasn’t particularly known for pushing the limits—it wasn’t known for much of anything, really, according to several of its staffers—but this relatively daring issue offered a chance to change that.
The paper’s contents were not particularly risqué. The front page featured a photograph of peer educators with the caption, “Scream S.O.S. if you need help,” accompanied by an article explaining what consent is, and a profile of the school’s men’s golf coach. Other features included “Fun with Dick and Jane: Pornography and its Existence in Intimate Relationships,” “I Should Be Allowed to Like Sex,” and “He Ate My Booty Like Groceries,” which was about the societal taboo surrounding various sex acts.
Shortly after the issue’s publication, the school took action: The SGA scheduled a forum to discuss The Pauw Wow and what should be in a student newspaper in general. By February 11, the editorial board had received an email from Gerard O’Sullivan, the provost and vice president for academic affairs, asking them to come to his office. Days later, he would reportedly berate the student staff with their advisor, the TV journalist Ernabel DeMillo, saying the issue had been in poor taste and that the students were bad writers and would never be hired elsewhere once they left school.
During that meeting, O’Sullivan also announced he would be reassigning DeMillo, who had been at the university since 2008 as a professor of journalism and the Pauw Wow’s advisor since 2012.
“We tried to fight that in the meeting, our advisor is someone who has watched me grow from a contributing writer to the editor-in-chief, and who has groomed all of us into being good writers,” said Olivia Monahan, the paper’s Managing Editor and Lifestyle Editor, and Editor-in-Chief-elect. “It was tough to deal with that on the spot, but then there’s not much you can do. I don’t think anybody outside of our newsroom knows [she was reassigned].”
Spring break immediately followed the publication of the problematic issue, so the editorial board didn’t attempt to publish again until March 13. Shortly after closing, they received a call from the printer: They had been instructed by the administration not to print any new issues until receiving further notice. Then, they received an email from Dean of Students Anthony Skevakis that read in part:
Can you bring a group together comprised of the outgoing board and students who were initially elected as the new board? I wanted to discuss several topics some of which include:
- steps to move forward with relation to governing documents, constitution, and other provisions
- identification of and contracting with a new printer
- redesigning the pauw wow’s online presence
- student hardware needs
- other student needs / topics
- advisor needs / topics
For the time being, we will not be printing or posting any new issues of the Pauw Wow. My hope is that once we resolve some of the discussion items, we can resume operations.
“Because we have not published, it has made the student body believe that because of our Valentine’s Day issue we have been completely squashed, that we don’t exist anymore,” Monahan said. “Because we’re not allowed to post anything, we can’t tell people that’s not the reason.”
Saint Peter’s University prides itself as one of 28 Jesuit institutions (including Boston College and Georgetown University) in the United States, and devotes a large portion of its website to its religious identity. The school also requires that each undergraduate complete six credits in theology to graduate, including one course entitled Christianity in the Contemporary Era.
But Rose Driscoll, a former Editor-in-Chief of the Pauw Wow who graduated in 2014, said that although the school is “pretty intensely Catholic,” it wasn’t morally questionable articles that her class of journalists was most concerned with:
“We got into a little more trouble for posting things like, ‘Why is tuition always going up?’ ‘We are not getting what we’re paying for here at this school,’” she said. “We would go up against roadblocks like people in financial aid wouldn’t talk to us if we wanted to do interviews. Sometimes when there were open meetings they would be like, ‘Oh shit, it’s a Pauw Wow kid. They’re gonna write some terrible stuff.’ It was never this bad when I was in school.”
In a statement, a university spokesperson explained that the newspaper was suspended because it had been operating “without current and approved governing documents.” Because of that (although sources indicate that the organization hasn’t had a full set of governing documents for several years), the budget of the paper was frozen and the recent election of officers was nullified. “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.
“The Pauw Wow is an important part of the University’s history and will continue to be a student activity that is supported by the University. Once the proper governing documents are in place and the budget is reinstated by the SGA, a new editorial board and adviser will be appointed to lead the staff in best practices in news reporting.”
The First Amendment doesn’t apply to newspapers at private institutions, so the students don’t have any sort of legal protection or recourse. The issue at play is whether or not it is a good educational practice for an institution to muzzle its news outlet for a prolonged period of time.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, thinks the move is self-defeating, considering the students could easily start self-publishing online. He also said that, unfortunately, this sort of censorship happens all the time.
“There are some really successful high-end programs that are well-supported by their colleges that are doing amazing stuff,” he said on a phone call with Jezebel, “And then you’ve got other campuses where journalism is regarded as an annoyance and a threat to the college’s positive image.”
“In those places, journalists are always walking on eggshells and looking over their shoulders, waiting for their budget to be yanked or their advisor to be fired.”
LoMonte referenced two cases from last year, in which newspapers at Northern Michigan University and at Iowa’s Muscatine Community College saw their advisors fired in retaliation for articles.
In 2015, student journalists at Fairmont State University in West Virginia experienced a similar outcome after completing a stunningly impressive investigation and exposé into the presence of black mold on campus.
“We went and actually independently tested multiple sites around campus to see if we could find a toxic form of black mold,” said Jacob Buckland, the then-editor-in-chief to a local television station.
WDTV reports that shortly after the investigation, the newspaper became the subject of the school administration’s ire:
The reporters sampled three locations on campus and tow tested positive for black mold. The newspaper then published the story in three installations. Buckland and Wilson hoped the story would encourage the university to take action, but things did not go the way they expected.
“I got administrators coming to me and to my reporters, asking us not to print these articles that showed a negative light on the university,” Buckland said.
The two students then reached out to the school’s Board of Governors to talk about the negative reactions, but communications between the Board and the paper became difficult when school administrators shut down “The Columns” email account, Buckland said.
Additionally, the newspaper’s faculty advisor, Michael Kelley, said he was terminated from a three year contract as a temporary professor at FSU. Wilson and Buckland fear this might be related to their controversial articles.
“I think that ironically, the internet was supposed to make censorship obsolete,” LoMonte continued, “It was supposed to liberate everybody from government censorship and, in fact, at the college and high school level it’s probably made censorship worse because the institutions are now terrified that those newspapers are gonna have indefinite life online.”
While a certain amount of oversight at high school newspapers might be understandable (the staff is under 18 and could need extra guidance), college papers are generally expected to have editorial independence and the same basic rights as professional news outlets.
“Stuff that they were okay with when it was a print newspaper seen by 500 people that went in the garbage the next day, they’re petrified by today,” LoMonte continued.
And the issue of free speech on campuses has only been growing in the national spotlight, largely in relation to topics that might be deemed triggering or offensive. Like when a group of Wesleyan students petitioned to defund the student newspaper unless it instituted a thorough diversity initiative; or when the rugby team at Mary Washington University was suspended over chanting about “fuck[ing] a whore,”; or when a faculty member at Yale argued that students should be allowed to wear offensive costumes; or when a Wheaton College (Illinois) board recommended that a professor be fired for suggesting that Islam and Christianity shared the same god.
A recent Gallup survey found that a good portion of college students feel that the prevailing ideology on campus might prevent them from speaking their mind: While 78 percent of college students said that colleges should expose students to all sorts of speech instead of limiting it to “the furtherance of a positive learning environment,” 54 percent of students reportedly felt that campus culture might prevent some people from speaking openly because others might find it offensive. The survey also noted that most students thought they were able to distinguish between speech that is intentionally offensive from speech that earnestly represents a controversial view.