Fight Over Mustang Daily Sex Column at Cal Poly Helps Define Modern Student Press

As I have written many times before, the biggest battles in collegemediatopia take place behind the scenes.  My estimate: For each major censorship scandal (like this past spring’s La Salle stripper story prior restraint), there are more than a hundred notes of criticism or threats of censorship from those in power.  They don’t make headlines, but they do challenge j-students and their advisers, and further cement the need for a strong, independent student press.

Leticia Rodriguez, outgoing editor-in-chief of The Mustang Daily, was challenged this past February.  In emails recently brought to my attention, a dean at California Polytechnic State University sharply criticized Rodriguez and the newspaper for publishing a column on blowjobs.  As the messages below reveal, Rodriguez’s reply should strike a chord with all student press supporters searching for the right balance between respecting gray-haired admins. and, well, telling them frankly how it is.

I also corresponded with Rodriguez briefly to provide some context for the messages. Here’s our quick Q&A:

During your tenure, what was the paper’s general perspective on publishing sex and love columns, including those on less-than-PG topics?

Rodriguez: When it came to sex and love columns, we pretty much gave our columnists free rein because we really wanted them to feel comfortable to discuss their views on their given subjects.  While some of the topics were not something I would write about or something another editor would write about, we had to think of our audience and the fact that some people do want to hear about different sex acts.  Some staff members were a lot more vocal about sex than others.  Taking that into consideration, we had to remember that some were going to be upset by some of the topics while other thought the topics tame.  The only point that I absolutely stressed was that no column would be published that encouraged getting a girl or boy drunk in order to hook up, rape, give them date rape drugs, and acts along those lines.  Other than that, we encouraged them to talk about what they wanted to talk about and if we did have an issue, we talked about it with them immediately.

Embedded in the dean’s emails, were there any particular points you felt were sound or worth a discussion in the newsroom?

I did not feel any of the arguments made by the dean were really worth discussing in full detail with the staff. After reading the email, the general manager asked me if there was any time in which I would not publish one of the sex columns.  I told him only if the column encouraged date rape, drugs, excessive drinking, etc.  We also talked about it with the sex columnist.  She was a little nervous about the whole situation, but knew that the managing editor and I would always support her.  The staff last year was extremely close and we talked about a lot of things during our big Sunday night meetings, so the complaint by the dean was well known.  Above everything, the staff supported the sex columnist (who was also a copy editor) and was not happy by some of the statements made by the dean because we were all very close and supportive of each other.  The managing editor and I didn’t really keep secrets from other staff members so they knew where we stood on the situation as well as what action was being taken.

Here are the original messages.  My reaction: dismay at the admin’s ignorant overreaching (he admits he doesn’t read the paper much and is obviously clueless about the rise in student newspaper sex columns worldwide) and adoration for Rodriguez’s professionalism in both replies.

As I can attest from my extensive research for my book Sex and the University, the dean’s messages contain all the trappings of the typical school official sex column complaint– referring to a school donor, questioning sex’s place in journalism, making the argument one of morality, mentioning an editor’s/columnist’s family (a low blow in my opinion), speaking about how they ‘get it’ on one level because they lived through the ’60s, and, of course, saying in the end that they are simply trying to be a good teacher (in a field in which they have no real experience) and don’t actually want to cause any trouble for the paper.  Hmm.

MESSAGE #1

Dear Leticia:

I was disappointed to see the sex column in the Mustang Daily Wednesday, February 9.  I would not have seen it except a donor disgustedly alerted me to it.  To have a column on blow jobs is not appropriate or dignified for a legitimate campus newspaper and the graphic descriptions are beyond trashy.

In bringing issues such as this to the attention of the Mustang Daily in the past I have been told respectfully that this is what students want and that it is common in campus newspapers today though this may not have been the case in my generation.  Let me assure you that I am not a prude.  I do have the maturity of age.  If you put this kind of stuff in the newspaper I suspect quite a few people will read it because of the sensational nature of it.  That doesn’t mean they were clammering for it before.  And because others do something does not mean you should.

The Mustang Daily needs to decide if it wants to be a respectable newspaper that emulates the dailies like New York Times or if it would rather be compared with the National Enquirer or Penthouse.  As editor you have the responsibility to ensure that your newspaper is of quality and something that brings pride to the University.  Any good you have in your newspaper is more than offset by articles such as this.

Let me ask you and [the writer of the piece] if this is something you would be proud to show to your family…..parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins?  Is it something you will want to place in your portfolio if you apply for a position at a newspaper?  Do you think this has brought pride and honor to Cal Poly?

Again, Leticia…you are editor.  You are a senior.  This is on you…you are responsible.  Do you feel good about accepting and publishing such an article written by a sophomore at Cal Poly, probably still a teenager without the experience you have.  Do you think this is something of quality and that brings pride to you and your University?

I hope you will eliminate such articles from your newspaper in the future and apologize for this one and previous ones that I heard about yesterday but did not see.  In the meantime I will deal with the donor whose pride in Cal Poly is severely compromised.

Thank you for reading.

Philip S. Bailey, Dean

MESSAGE #2

—– Original Message —–

From: “Leticia M. Rodriguez”

To: “Phil Bailey” <pbailey@calpoly.edu>

Sent: Thursday, February 10, 2011 11:51:51 PM

Subject: Re: Sex Column

Hi Dean Bailey,

First, I would just like to say that I’m saddened you don’t read the Mustang Daily on a regular basis and that you had to hear about the column from a donor. But I do appreciate you sending me an e-mail with your concerns.

You say in your e-mail that I, as editor, need to decide if I want the Mustang Daily to be compared to The New York Times or the National Enquirer or Penthouse. Honestly, I would prefer for the Mustang Daily to carve its own path by not being afraid of being reprimanded by administrators for having the confidence to publish material that isn’t going to be accepted by all readers. Did I know, prior to publishing this article, that there would be people that were going to be upset? Absolutely because with more than 20,000 students, faculty and staff at Cal Poly it is not a simple task to please everyone and I would never go to the lengths to do so. You also state that just because students will read the column, it does not mean they were “clammering” for it. If this is your argument, the same argument could be made about almost any article ever published. There are students who could care less about the liberal column and may even be greatly offended by it but there are also students who love the column and the same goes for Caitlyn’s sex column. There will always be people who hate what is in the paper and people who enjoy what is in the paper. Again, it is not my job to be a people-pleaser and I would not want it any other way.

Would I put this piece of writing in my portfolio? Yes, because, along with the 40 other articles I have written for the Mustang Daily, this shows that I have a wide variety of writing styles in my arsenal. It would show that I can write hard-hitting news, cover sports, write a profile, cover arts events and produce a column that gets people talking.

The thing that makes me proud is running this award-winning newspaper (we, in fact, just won three awards from the California College Media Association) with every single member of this fantastic Mustang Daily staff. I am proud of them, I am proud of the work they put in and I am proud of each issue that we produce as a staff, both as editorial and advertising. Yes, I am responsible for this paper and I take full responsibility for the editorial content in the Mustang Daily as I have clearly shown by addressing any and all concerns about any story from any student, faculty, staff or administrator. Unlike you, I do not think [the writer’s] age is a factor here because (as is common in our generation but maybe not so much in yours), young people are becoming more sexually involved and knowledgeable at a younger age. The only important factor here is that [the writer] is an adult. She is a very intelligent young woman very capable of making her own decisions. I in no way encouraged or forced or pushed her to write an article on this topic. It was her decision and (as I have said countless times before and will say again), I stand behind her 100 percent. Is this article of quality that brings pride to Cal Poly? Yes, because it shows that Cal Poly believes in its students and does not censor their ideas and voices even if they may not agree with them. If it’s pride toward Cal Poly you’re concerned about, there are numerous other incidences by other students, faculty and staff that may not paint a positive light on Cal Poly. This is not to say that I condone other behaviors or choose to emulate them, I am simply saying that everything can have a negative spin depending on the way it is viewed. Will some look at this column and (as you have so clearly stated) proclaim it to be trashy? Yes. But will others view this article and applaud Cal Poly for educating confident and intelligent young men and women? Yes.

Dean Bailey, I will not apologize for publishing this article or any of the previously published articles. Nor will I force [the writer] to do so either. If she chooses to send an apology I will support her, but you will not receive one from me. I have talked to the managing editor [name omitted] and he agrees with me. The only thing I will apologize for is that you feel you have to “deal” with a donor instead of being proud of the Mustang Daily and the hard work the students put into creating the newspaper every night. As a dean, professor and member of the Cal Poly community, it would be my hope that instead of trying to placate a donor who does not agree with my decision, you would instead support us and encourage us to push our journalistic abilities to the sky. If this donor truly has an issue with the column, please encourage him to contact me directly. I will be more than happy to discuss with him any concerns he may have. . . .

If you have more concerns, please feel free to e-mail me again or I would be glad to meet with you in person.

Leticia

MESSAGE #3

—– Original Message —–

From: “Phil Bailey”

To: “Leticia M. Rodriguez”

Sent: Friday, February 11, 2011 9:13:11 AM

Subject: Re: Sex Column

Dear Leticia:

I agree conceptually with almost everything you say.  And though I may have given the impression that this has caused problems with a donor, it isn’t about the donor.  The Mustang Daily should publish what it deems appropriate without regard for donors or me for that matter.  But there is an intellectual difference between publishing divergent viewpoints on various topics and offering graphic descriptions of how to do a blow job.  If you really thought this was appropriate material, then I have no argument with this particular decision though I disagree with it.  My argument really must address your decision making process and the values you use in making determinations.  And since I don’t have the time to pursue this I guess these are issues you must address as an editorial board in a thoughtful way.

I think the Mustang Daily shows a lot of quality.  I read it occasionally and we advertise in it and will continue to do so.  However, over the years I have been saddened by what I deem disrespectful or trashy material.  I believe the first time I wrote the editor several years ago it was about a sex column that (as I remember) encouraged upper classmen to take advantage of freshmen women before they put on the freshmen 15.  My daughter who is a social worker told me recently that most women have been inappropriately touched or molested sometime in their lives starting in childhood.  Approximately one in four college aged women have been subject to sexual assault.  These are merely some of the issues you should consider in making decisions on articles such as those you publish on sex.

Finally, Cal Poly is one of the nation’s most selective public universities.  The students who enroll are among the best in California.  Surely you can engage them through the Mustang Daily in ways that are much more useful and intellectual.  I went to school in the 60’s during the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and during the time that President Kennedy and his brother Robert and Martin Luther King were assassinated.  It was a time of turmoil and conflict with many divergent viewpoints and these have played a major role in my education and growth as a person.  I know you address issues of the day and I encourage you to continue this and to avoid unnecessary material that, in my opinion, cheapens your newspaper.

Thanks again for reading.

Philip S. Bailey, Dean

MESSAGE #4

—– Original Message —–

From: “Leticia M. Rodriguez”

To: “Phil Bailey”

Dean Bailey,

I respectfully disagree and feel that some of your backlash against the paper is due in part because of a donor. If that isn’t the case, then you wouldn’t have mentioned it in your previous e-mail. When the staff makes a decision to publish a story or article, we do not take into consideration whether or not the administration or other faculty members will be upset with us as a result of the content because that is not our job. We publish hard-hitting news, soft news, arts events, sports games, athlete profiles and news that affects the Cal Poly community. People are always going to be upset by something that is published in any forum because it makes them uncomfortable, makes them question those they trust or makes them expand their mind in ways they aren’t ready for.

My “values” (as you have put into question) are very strong and every decision I make is with the Mustang Daily in mind. You may not agree with my decisions regarding the newspaper but you also don’t read the newspaper to see what we’re all about. You’re not in the newsroom at night to see the work we put in and so I don’t think it’s fair for you to question my values. That would be for another conversation and e-mail chain.

You talk about advertising in the Mustang Daily and I think that is fantastic. I assume why you mention that your college advertises in the paper is to show that you support us but supporting the students and the newspaper is so much more than buying an ad when the new president arrives on campus. Supporting the newspaper is reading it more than when a donor doesn’t approve of an article, supporting it is sticking up for the students who work for the paper and supporting it is sending an e-mail with your concerns that doesn’t include questioning someone’s values whom you have only met once.

While I think the statistics you mentioned are very noteworthy, I must say that I am offended that you believe I don’t take into consideration the safety of the women on this campus. As a 22-year-old woman who lived in San Luis Obispo during the time when Kristen Smart and Aundria Crawford were killed, I can remember when the news broke and I can see it in my parents eyes every time I leave the house at night, their fear that I could be the next one. You’re talking to a woman whose friend was sexually assaulted at a party, whose friend was beaten and almost raped by a close friend and who asks her managing editor to walk her to her car at night after we send the paper to the printer. I care very much about the safety of the women on this campus and you can bet that I would be the first to stand against sexual assault or violence against any human being. I have a younger sister, I have little cousins — you’re preaching to the choir Dean Bailey.

I can only imagine the excitement and the buzz during the ’60s. To live during such a historic moment in American history is fascinating and I can only imagine what it was like. However, these aren’t the ’60s and the way students and other readers are engaged in the newspaper has changed. While you may find the article to be trashy and undesirable, others find it intriguing and are using it as an informational tool. We will continue to publish material that addresses the issues of the day but that might not always be favorable in everyone’s eyes. Even if some believe it “cheapens” our newspaper.

Leticia

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