Reporters flocked to a campus controversy but missed its surprising conclusion

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A column criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement nearly sank The Wesleyan Argus, the nation’s oldest twice-weekly college newspaper, in September 2015. The ensuing backlash and national media attention made the small, private Wesleyan University a poster child for a recurring debate over the First Amendment on campus.

More than a year later, it’s almost as if the controversy never happened. The Argus barely mentions it in its pages. Activists who spearheaded a drive to defund the paper didn’t want to talk about it with CJR. University President Michael S. Roth in an interview dismisses the brouhaha as “a minor incident” and “a nonsense issue.”

So did the national media, which stampeded to cover the controversy, make a mountain out of a molehill?

The paper’s story of survival is largely untold. After splashing the controversy across the Internet, the national press abandoned the story even as The Argus struggled through a year of uncertainty and faced down a second attempt to seize its funding. Stories from The Washington Post and the Hartford Courant, as well as conservative news outlets Breitbart, The Blaze, and Newsmax, falsely reported that the paper had actually been defunded.

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CJR sought to fill in the gaps of the fight over The Argus’ funding and free speech at Wesleyan. The uproar reveals many things, from the willingness among some campus activists to restrict free speech to protect minorities, to the malicious use of social media, to the stubborn persistence of large racial imbalances on the staffs of college publications. It also highlights the tendency of both conservative and liberal news outlets to hype a controversy and then walk away.

But in the end, it is primarily the story of one student who challenged prevailing views at one of the nation’s most liberal universities and of a group of student journalists who, after a shaky start, got their mojo back and saved their paper and its independence. The paper responded to critics by creating a news section devoted to minority voices, while also asserting its First Amendment rights and pursuing financial independence to defend itself against future attacks. In contrast to other schools shaken by similar controversies at the same time, clear winners have emerged–some rather surprising for a school with Wesleyan’s reputation as a bastion of hyper-liberalism. 

 

Column sparks outrage

When Wesleyan University sophomore Bryan Stascavage (now a junior) in September 2015 penned a piece criticizing the tactics of some Black Lives Matter activists, he and his editors didn’t expect controversy. Granted, the column was provocative. But the 32-year-old former army intelligence analyst, who served two tours totaling almost 27 months in Iraq and attends Wesleyan through a special program for ex-service members, had ruffled feathers before at the famously liberal school.

This time was different. Within 24 hours, the bucolic campus in Middletown, Connecticut exploded in outrage. Both the paper and Stascavage were swiftly branded racist. Echoing similar incidents around the same time at Yale University and University of Missouri, emotional students angrily accused the paper’s editors, who are overwhelmingly white, of failing to provide “a safe space” for students of color and abusing their “privilege” as whites.


Those first two weeks were just a blur to me. About a month after that article came out reminded me a lot of being deployed (to Iraq) because it was 14-to-16-hour days.”


Stascavage found himself under siege. He endured a torrent of abuse on social media and in comments posted to the article. Students began muttering “racist” as he walked past, he says. A few days after the piece was published, an African-American student confronted and harangued him in the café at the Wesleyan bookstore, crying hysterically, talking about being assaulted by police and accusing him of “oppressing” her, he recalls. Stascavage did not file a complaint about the incident–he concluded the best response was to ignore it–but says he did informally tell the administration.

“Those first two weeks were just a blur to me,” Stascavage says in a January 2016 interview, as he sits in the off-campus house he shares with other ex-servicemen. “About a month after that article came out reminded me a lot of being deployed (to Iraq) because it was 14-to-16-hour days.”

The paper’s editors likewise weathered a storm of vitriolic attacks and criticism. “There were people on campus who were no longer talking to me,” Co-Editor Rebecca Brill says in a February 2016 interview. “There are people on campus who still don’t talk to me.” The rage the article elicited blindsided Brill, and she set out to understand it. Agreeing to meet with the paper’s critics from The Ankh–a campus publication aimed at students of color, which spearheaded the attacks–she was struck by their raw emotion and pain. Many complained that they felt “unsafe” at Wesleyan as a result of the article, she says.

“They said it was propagating a racist ideology,” Brill says. “’White supremacy’ got thrown around a lot. Definitely a lot of anger, a lot of tears, very emotional. I do think a lot of these students were genuinely hurt by the piece.”

Under intense pressure–especially from The Ankh, whose members at one point descended en mass on The Argus newsroom to demand it renounce the piece as racist–the paper apologized. Not told of the apology beforehand, Stascavage felt “thrown under the bus,” he says. 

 

Defunding proposed

But the mea culpa didn’t work. The school’s aggressive and vocal protest community, including backers of unrelated causes, united against The Argus. A petition began circulating calling for a boycott of the paper and the dumping of copies in recycling bins. The bins quickly filled to overflowing. The petition also called on the student government, which provides most of The Argus’ operating cash, to immediately defund the paper unless a series of demands were met. Those demands included greater diversity on the paper’s staff, more minority recruitment, once-a-semester social justice and diversity training for the staff, and monthly staffing and spending reports. The petition also wanted the paper to designate space on the front page of every issue for “marginalized groups/voices,” with the words “For Your Voice” to run if nothing was submitted.


Definitely a lot of anger, a lot of tears, very emotional. I do think a lot of these students were genuinely hurt by the piece.”


As activists gathered signatures, top campus leaders weighed in. In a blog post entitled “Black Lives Matter, But So Does Free Speech,” President Roth, Provost Joyce Jacobson, and Vice President for Equity and Inclusive Antonio Farias defended The Argus and condemned “harassment” of Stascavage and the paper’s editors. “There is no right not to be offended,” they wrote.

The administrators’ post seemed to incense the activists further. A scathing rebuttal posted to The Ankh’s Facebook page and signed, “A Group of Concerned and Unapologetic Students of Color,” excoriated the administrators for defending “a privileged voice,” rejected their First Amendment arguments, and accused them of abetting “institutional racism.” The dispute was about safety and the ability of minority voices to be heard, not freedom of expression, they wrote. Free speech “in its popular understanding” only “protects the belief systems of dominant people,” the statement asserted.

Members of The Ankh did not want to talk to CJR about the open letter or what Stascavage, Brill and others described as the group’s leading role in the attacks on The Argus. CJR sent four interview requests via email to The Ankh, which has no listed phone number, in January and February 2016. A letter hand-delivered to its office in February 2016, and a fifth email sent in April, also went unanswered.

In December 2016, as this article neared publication, CJR reached out again via email. This time, Taylor McClain, who identified herself as part of  The Ankh’s leadership, responded that she was studying abroad at the time of controversy and would pass on CJR’s interview request to other members. If anyone wished to comment, they would contact CJR, she wrote. CJR received no communication from those members of the publication, which published an issue in print and regularly posted on its Facebook page during the fall 2016 semester.

The drive to defund The Argus soon gained a powerful ally: Wesleyan Student Assembly President Kate Cullen. Cullen signed the defunding petition with 170 others, mostly students. She and Vice President Aidan Martinez made it clear at a September 20, 2015 meeting–six days after the controversy broke–that they were open to pulling the paper’s funding if it didn’t meet the petition’s demands, meeting minutes show.

“Don’t think of this as a way to silence free speech, but as an equity and inclusion issue,” Martinez said, according to the minutes.

 

Turning point

Facing the sudden loss of most of its funding, Brill said she and The Argus’ more than 80 editors, writers, and production staff felt their backs against the wall. The editors were so demoralized that they seriously considered disbanding the 149-year-old paper, Brill and others say. They decided to put three options to the staff: Accept the petition’s demands, disband, or develop an independent funding source. The student journalists voted unanimously to seek outside funding, Brill says.

At about the same time, Stascavage reached his own turning point. Fearing the long-term consequences of being branded a racist on the Internet, he went on the offensive. Stascavage contacted The College Fix website, where he had published previous pieces, and offered a story on the controversy. His resulting article sparked a firestorm of national coverage, most of it portraying Wesleyan as yet another campus where social-justice warriors were running amok and trampling the First Amendment. “Hypocritical Wesleyan Kids Try to Shut Down School Paper,” read one headline in Boston Magazine; “Wesleyan‘s Students for an Undemocratic Society” read another in The Daily Beast. Stascavage suddenly found himself a cause célèbre. Fox News, CNN, and the Huffington Post all called for interviews and largely portrayed him as a victim of liberal intolerance on campus.

Facing growing pushback from the paper, criticism from the administration, and derision from the national media, student government leaders abandoned the initial defunding proposal. But they didn’t back down. In its place, they crafted a complicated plan to redirect $17,000 of The Argus’ $30,000 print budget to stipends for students of color with financial need to encourage them to write for the paper and other campus publications. The purpose, student government leaders insisted, was to promote diversity and reduce paper usage, not retaliate for Stascavage’s column. But Brill says the paper always viewed the proposal as punishment and made that clear in talks with the student government. The paper pointed out that the plan would force it to print only once a week and fire paid staff.

“I made it my stance that this is a violation of freedom of speech from the get-go,” Brill says. “I also made it clear we’re willing to make The Argus a more welcoming and more representative place for students of color. That was always part of the conversation.”

In mid-October, after much debate, the student government abruptly dropped its well-publicized proposal to immediately cut the paper’s budget to fund the stipends proposal. At the urging of Stascavage, who served on student government before he resigned in disgust, they instead created a committee to study the plan and postponed a final defunding decision until the end of the school year. That subtlety was lost on local and many national publications, including Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampel and the Hartford Courant, both of which falsely reported that the paper’s funding had been cut.

 

‘Access to freedom of speech’

Former student government president Cullen in an interview with CJR fumes about the reporting errors and what she saw as unfair coverage. “The national media said things that were not true,” she says. Freedom of the press is “a moral imperative,” but the controversy was about equity in the exercise of that right, not the right itself, she says. Institutional barriers had long kept students of color off The Argus, she says. As a result, access to First Amendment rights is not evenly distributed, she says. The student government’s proposal sought to remedy that historical imbalance by providing stipends to economically disadvantaged minority students, she says.

“A key point that the national media has continually reported incorrectly is that the goals of these campus activists were not to limit freedom of speech of one individual, but to demand broader access to that right,” Cullen says in a February 2016 interview. “If a white person has a greater opportunity to join the paper, they have greater freedom to express themselves and have their opinions be valued.”

Fellow student government member Alex Garcia, who fashioned the stipends proposal, says his plan sought “to make a better and more inclusive media landscape for Wesleyan.”

Other student government members did not respond to requests for comment or declined to speak on the record. CJR reached out to student Tedra James, the first to sign the petition, and who later wrote a scathing op-ed for The Argus, but she did not respond.

Brill and The Argus’ co-editors during the spring 2016 semester agreed that the paper needed more students of color and emphasized that anyone who walks in the door is welcome. They pointed to efforts to recruit more minority writers and reach out to students of color via news coverage. Brill and Co-Editor Tess Morgan contacted student-of-color organizations to encourage minority students to join the paper, but those efforts “didn’t really take,” Brill says.

Stascavage has a different take. He blames the activists for the lack of students of color at The Argus. By routinely branding the paper racist or insensitive, they effectively discourage minorities from joining, he says.

 

A culture of fear?

Brill and Stascavage believe a culture of fear at Wesleyan squelches questioning of left-wing orthodoxy and helped fuel the controversy. Activists wield accusations of racism as a cudgel to silence critics, they say. Other students interviewed by CJR agreed, but declined to speak on the record for fear of retaliation.

“Nonsense,” says President Roth last winter during an interview with CJR in his book-lined office in one of Wesleyan’s stately brownstone buildings. Roth becomes visibly annoyed when told that Stascavage and others said a climate of fear reigns at Wesleyan. Anyone afraid to speak her or his mind at Wesleyan should “get a spine,” he says. 

“I do hear this, that people are afraid,” Roth says. “But what are they afraid of? That there will be violent disagreement?”

Stascavage says his article was a symptom of a deeper underlying problem. “There are individuals on campus who are willing to use aggressive means to keep Wesleyan’s mindset the way it is,” he says. “If anyone steps out of line with that, social ostracizing, public ridicule, public shaming, all these things happen.”

Roth points to the presence of Stascavage and other veterans as proof of Wesleyan’s willingness to challenge the school’s longstanding liberal orthodoxy. Stascavage was one of 20 veterans last school year on full scholarship through the Posse Foundation, an organization that helps veterans and other nontraditional students go to college.

“One of the reasons we brought Posse here is to have a richer conversation with different points of view,” Roth says. “The story should be, here’s a liberal arts college changing the dynamics of conversation on campus and supporting military veterans. Part of what happened is, if there’s intellectual diversity, there’s going to be conflict. That’s good.”


Roth becomes visibly annoyed when told that Stascavage and others said a climate of fear reigns at Wesleyan. Anyone afraid to speak her or his mind at Wesleyan should ‘get a spine,’ he says.


Throughout the controversy, Roth walked a tightrope, defending not only The Argus, Stascavage, and free speech, but also the activists. In a Hartford Courant op-ed in late October 2015, for example, Roth wrote that students must “be open to being offended for the sake of learning,” but also said that pieces like Stascavage’s “facilitate the ongoing marginalization of a sector of our student population.”

Roth treads a similarly fine line during his interview with CJR. He notes that free speech, while vital, is not necessarily the most important value in other western democracies. Asked if the United States should consider rebalancing free speech with other rights, such as equality, Roth says no.

“I think it’s a reasonable to say that free speech is really important, but so are other things,” Roth says. “I am a pragmatist myself. I don’t think you should say one thing is always more important than other things.”

Roth also accuses the national media of misreporting the controversy, singling out the Washington Post for criticism. Roth says the controversy ultimately worked itself out. He viewed it as a sign of health and “a teachable moment” and expresses confidence that The Argus would emerge even stronger as an institution.

 

Détente and a second defunding attempt

For the rest of the 2015-2016 school year, the controversy smoldered and occasionally flared. In the immediate aftermath, Argus alumni rushed to the paper’s defense, forming an advisory committee, and helping to raise money for an endowment-emergency fund if funding were cut. Dozens of former Argus editors, including former New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse, Forward Editor in Chief Jane Eisner, and CNBC’s Michael Santoli, published a letter to the editor in The Argus harshly criticizing student government and imploring it to reconsider possible defunding of the paper.

By early February 2016, the paper’s new co-editors and student government had settled into an uneasy truce. In interviews with CJR, Cullen and The Argus’ editors express optimism the study committee would find a way to keep the paper’s funding intact. The paper, meanwhile, reached out to critics, redoubled its efforts to recruit students of color, created a new column for minority voices, and expanded coverage of minority events, co-editors Jess Zalph and Courtney Laermer say.

A month later, the shaky ceasefire collapsed. Without warning, the Student Budget Committee, a semi-autonomous part of student government, effectively tried to seize approximately $12,000 the paper had raised toward an endowment, citing a rule prohibiting student organizations from having special accounts.

This time, The Argus came out swinging. In a stinging editorial, Zalph and Laermer accused student government of waging a sustained campaign to undermine the paper’s finances and independence. Erica DeMichiel, who became co-editor in the fall of 2016, called the second defunding attempt “a big slap in the face,” given the paper’s efforts to address the activists’ criticism. The budget committee backed off. Student government never acted on the original defunding proposal, effectively killing it.

 

‘The free speech side won’

Relations between The Argus and its critics, meanwhile, have improved significantly, and the new column focusing on marginalized voices has expanded to a section. The paper had no trouble obtaining funding in 2016, but becoming financially independent remains a long-term goal, DeMichiel says.

President Roth says the paper emerged from the defunding controversy “a little stronger.” But he questions whether The Argus ever faced a real threat of going under and dismisses media focus on the controversy as “part of the political correctness hysteria that has nothing to do with the real issues of injustice in this country.”

“I’m sure these students at the time felt threatened,” he says. “But they decided we ought to stick to this. That’s the story. Not that they almost didn’t.”

Stascavage, now a junior and Donald Trump supporter, continues to write for The Argus, where he keeps challenging Wesleyan’s liberal ethos. Stascavage holds no grudge. Shortly after the presidential election, he wrote an op-ed for The New York Times that struck a conciliatory tone. He credited Wesleyan’s liberal professors with teaching him to question, opening his mind to back Trump.

His take on the uproar more than a year later: “I think the quiet you are seeing is the fact that the free speech side won,’’ Stascavage tells CJR. “At least from my perspective, the campus has recognized the value of having contrarian voices.”

It’s a victory that neither liberal nor conservative media found worthy of reporting.

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Christopher Hoffman is a longtime Connecticut journalist whose work has appeared in the Hartford Courant, New Haven Register, Yale Medicine Magazine, Connecticut Magazine, and Marine Corps Magazine.