Fairfield U. student paper making headlines
Published 12:00 pm, Friday, November 20, 2009
He went into the year hoping to gather the news, explain the news, shape the news -- not be the news. But for the past month and a half, Tom Cleary, editor of Fairfield University's student-run paper, The Mirror, has been front-page material.
The drama began when the paper's Sep. 30 edition hit newsstands with a lewd column inside that mocked girls who agree to one-night stands. The column set off a campus-wide debate -- that's since gone national, with organizations such as the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) weighing in -- about the role and independence of student newspapers at college.
Some of the questions that have been raised: Should student papers be subjected to university policy and regulation? If not, should the paper receive university funding? Can its content be monitored -- or controlled -- without undermining its independence?
The column that set off the debate was part of a recurring series of satirical pieces that alternate between a stereotypical guy's and a girl's perspective on relationships. In its more reprintable parts -- for this publication -- it used words to describe females such as "young swan," "broad," "your victim," and "stage five clinger."
Four female students filed harassment charges with the Office of Students against the paper in the next five days. The University Council, which is made up of students, faculty and administration, floated the idea of cutting funding for the paper -- it gets $30,000 a year as well as an office from the university, though it considers itself something of a news-gathering "contractor" -- if the paper didn't submit to a new, acceptable partnership agreement with the university.
In an editorial to the Connecticut Post earlier this week, Thomas C. Pellegrino, associate vice president and dean of students, wrote: "It is critical that a student newspaper be free from prior censorship, while also taking genuine advantage of rigorous post-publication advisement, and striving for the highest level of journalistic standards applicable to college newspapers."
Reached for comment Wednesday, Cleary said that two questions persist: The first, whether the four harassment complaints will go before the student conduct board. That would place the paper under the university's regulatory arm, which, Pellegrino wrote, has never happened before to his knowledge.
The paper and complainants are trying to reach an agreement for independent mediation instead.
The second question involves future methods of pre- and post-publication review. Cleary rules pre-publication review out categorically and is supported by the SPJ. But, he said, the paper is considering forming a post-publication "advisory board" involving alumni, faculty and students outside the paper to meet up once or twice a semester and discuss the contents of the paper. If people dislike something in the paper, he said, they can go to the advisory board.
In a letter to Pellegrino, Cleary wrote: "The advisory board will not be able to overrule the editor in chief. Any statements from the board will be suggestions to the editor in chief. They will have no editorial power, but the Mirror will publish any reports by the advisory board in its newspaper in a timely manner."
Currently, the paper has one faculty adviser that meets with the staff every Thursday, the day after its weekly issue hits the stands.
Pellegrino is currently reviewing the paper's suggestions. Cleary said he could meet with the dean as early as next week.
Said Cleary, "It's been interesting to see people rally around the issue, even if it is negative to us. It's nice to see that people care about what we write, but we would have preferred it be something positive."