In Chicago, student paper’s traffic spikes with coverage of dean’s controversial note

Photo by Chuck Szmurlo

Maggie Loughran was hiking along a canyon in Yellowstone National Park with her family last week when she got a message that a potential story was breaking back at the University of Chicago, where she is editor in chief of the student newspaper.

The tip: The university’s dean of students had sent a letter to incoming freshmen declaring the University of Chicago does not support so-called “trigger warnings” about potentially disturbing material and does not condone the creation of “safe spaces” where students can protect themselves from ideas different from their own.

The University of Chicago was on summer break (and will be until the end of September), and the small volunteer staff at its student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, are scattered around the country on vacation or working at internships.

Loughran, an English major from New York, had a quick discussion with the other editors at the paper about what to do. “Our first instinct was to verify it,” she says. They found a fellow student on the business side of the paper with a brother who is an incoming freshman–or first-year student, as the University of Chicago calls new students. They got a copy of the letter and shared it on Facebook and Twitter.

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A few hours later, Pete Grieve, a deputy news editor at the paper who is interning in the investigative unit at the Public Defender Service in Washington, DC, this summer, wrote a longer story about the letter for the Maroon website.

That story, subsequently shared by the Daily Mail and other news outlets, was one of the biggest ever for the Maroon. The paper had so much traffic on the story (more than 200,000 pageviews) that its website crashed on August 25 after the story broke, and it stayed down for 24 hours. Its first Twitter post about the letter was retweeted more than 4,400 times.

“We are a student newspaper at a pretty big institution,” Loughran says. “We often report on pretty pressing issues about professors, and freedom of speech has been a big issue always on our campus. That’s a trademark on our university. But this was the biggest story we’ve ever had. The pageviews blew us away.”

The Maroon reporting–and subsequent follow-ups–show exactly why student journalism still plays such a significant role on college campuses even as many struggle with the same economic realities of the rest of the news business. The dean’s letter was first reported on a right-wing blog called Intellectual Takeout. But the Maroon’s story took off in part because it came from an apolitical source. It also included student voices with differing viewpoints and recent examples of invited speakers who had been shouted down or kicked off campus.

This is the most explicit example of the university saying we don’t support safe spaces

The idea of trigger warnings and safe spaces is hotly contested in academia as colleges and universities across the country grapple with how to promote free speech while also being sensitive to the needs of students who might become distressed by certain images or discussions. It also is a political issue, pitting conservative critics who decry what they see as a stifling atmosphere of political correctness in higher education against progressives who want to protect marginalized groups of students from being further marginalized.

Both of the city’s major daily newspaper came out in support of the letter from Dean of Students Jay Ellison. The Chicago Tribune said that in many schools a “peculiar strain of narrow-mindedness” has infected the landscape, “leading students to believe their way of thinking shouldn’t be challenged.” The Chicago Sun-Times noted that it was “heartening to read a vigorous defense of free speech and intellectual inquiry–even when it makes people deeply uncomfortable.”

Grieve, the student editor who took the lead on reporting on the issue for the Maroon, says that while the University of Chicago has dealt with controversies over invited speakers during his time there, there hasn’t been as much attention paid to trigger warnings or safe spaces. (Last spring an invited speaker, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who later lost her reelection bid because of her handling of a case involving a white police officer who shot a black teenager, was forced to leave after being confronted by protesters in the audience.)

“This is the most explicit example of the university saying we don’t support safe spaces,” says Grieve, a second-year political science major.

Matthew Foldi, president of the university’s College Republicans, was also one of the first to break the story about the letter to students, writing about it for his blog the same day as the Maroon.

Foldi had tried unsuccessfully earlier in the year to get the Student Government Association at the university to reaffirm the school’s commitment to free expression.

“This is an important issue for me because I know firsthand how difficult it can be to hold unpopular viewpoints on campus,” Foldi says. “Countless people have told me that they would love to come to College Republican meetings but can’t because they are afraid of what people would think about them. Some of the most interesting speakers that I have heard on campus have been those with which I disagree with on a variety of issues.”

The Daily Northwestern staff at Northwestern University, also on break, responded quickly to media buzz over the letter at the University of Chicago, noting Northwestern President Morton Schapiro’s previous support of safe spaces on its campus. Schapiro also co-authored an op-ed for the LA Times last week that argued the protests on college campuses are the result of diversity, and not in a bad way, as students who had been mostly segregated before coming to college share the same academic space for the first time.

“It’s one of the foremost issues on our campuses,” says Julia Jacobs, editor in chief of the Daily Northwestern. “This issue seemed immediately relevant to our students.”

In both cases, student newspapers that don’t publish in the summer posted news articles on social media and their websites, making them relevant and, in some ways, making the story, already on Snopes, relevant as well.

“I think that the Maroon has the advantage of knowing the students involved with this issue better than any other outlet,” says Foldi, who made the rounds of Chicago media (including public radio station WBEZ and the CBS affiliate) to talk about his support of the letter. “We’ve seen how important local news reporters are in terms of covering issues that the national media misses–look at the Oregon-based outlets that led to Governor Kitzhaber resigning. In many cases, the Maroon has had better coverage of this issue than national outlets. In a recent story on this letter, The New York Times did not even interview a single student in support of it.”

Loughran, the Maroon editor in chief, says the student newspaper coverage of the letter gave the story legitimacy.

“It’s been a very exciting week,” she says. “This happened, and it’s my 20th birthday.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.