Student Newspaper Column on Rape Spurs Apology, Debate

One of the most high-profile controversies in collegemediatopia so far this semester is currently playing out at American University. The 30-second recap of the past six days: Controversial column touching on rape published in campus newspaper.  Outraged students and online readers.  Strong words of protest and even some newspaper trashing.  Media coverage.  Statements issued by the paper and university.  Public forums held.

The brouhaha began with an op-ed by AU sophomore Alex Knepper in The Eagle that questions the validity of date rape.  As a portion of the piece contends, “Let’s get this straight: any woman who heads to an EI party as an anonymous onlooker, drinks five cups of the jungle juice, and walks back to a boy’s room with him is indicating that she wants sex, OK? To cry ‘date rape’ after you sober up the next morning and regret the incident is the equivalent of pulling a gun to someone’s head and then later claiming that you didn’t ever actually intend to pull the trigger.”

As The Washington Post reports, “Knepper, who is openly gay, often writes on topics that infuriate students and hopes to someday be a political commentator. In an interview [this past] Monday he said that ‘real rape’ . . . is a heinous crime and rapists should be severely punished. ‘I have a fun time stirring the pot,’ Knepper said in an interview Monday.  ‘I don’t mind being hated for my views.'”

His article has logged close to 500 comments online and a number of letters to the editor.  In addition, according to the Student Press Law Center and Washington City Paper,  more than 1,000 copies of the Eagle were taken from their distribution points and left in a scattered pile outside the paper’s newsroom in protest of the piece.

Eagle editor-in-chief Jen Calantone: “‘We ran a column . . . and people were upset because [Knepper] posed a question regarding the line between what’s rape and what’s not rape.  So we had a poster on several of our stacks and a poster by our office just making a claim of him being a rape apologist.”  The signs read simply, “No room for rape apologists.”

In a letter to readers, the Eagle editorial board defends the column’s general stance, while confirming it would have been best to slightly tone down its rhetoric and supplement it with a counterpoint piece or a sider sporting “the legal definitions of date rape as well as resources for women and men affected.”  As the board wrote:

We stand by our decision to publish controversial opinions and will continue to publish opinions that a majority or minority of the campus community find wrong and potentially offensive. However, we should have demanded that Knepper’s column be written in a tone befitting such a serious issue. With a topic as controversial and emotionally charged as date rape, we should have ensured that the column was written in a manner that would have engendered constructive conversation. Instead, it inflamed an already sensitive issue and emotionally harmed many.

My take: The Eagle should be praised for its handling of the post-column fallout.  Editors have been open about the process that allowed the piece to be printed.  They have also acknowledged its shortcomings.  They have requested and already begun printing student, staff, and administrator responses.  And they have defended their columnists’ rights to express opinions that are far from popular.

As the letter to readers noted, “By publishing this piece, we were not trying to display our tacit support of Knepper’s views. However, as journalists, we are not in the business of censorship. As an editor, I would not feel right to fire or censor a writer who has offended people, because I believe that he has raised questions that warrant discussion.”

Ultimately, while editors correctly admit they could have handled things a bit better, the publication of Knepper’s column in many ways solidifies the Eagle‘s existence: It is spurring passionate discussion and debate about a timeless/timely issue of interest and relevance to students.

One Response to “Student Newspaper Column on Rape Spurs Apology, Debate”
  1. Jake says:

    Good job to The Eagle for defending the right of their columnist to espouse an unpopular opinion, even if he was insensitive. And boo to the people who tried to censor them.