Bridgewater State Student Paper Names Rape Victim, Faces ‘Angry Backlash’, Shutdown Threats, Fired Adviser

The Comment at Bridgewater State University is facing “an angry backlash” from its readers and overseers for naming a rape victim in an article published earlier this month.  A related backlash is aimed at BSU’s president for allegedly threatening to “shut down the paper” and cutting off access to all school officials unless the article or the victim’s name is removed online.  The paper’s faculty adviser has also been fired.

The controversial piece is a straightforward recounting of a student’s past sexual assault, a story she shared with 200 participants at a campus “Take Back the Night” rally.  It identifies the student by first and last name and provides additional details about her alleged attacker and the timing and location of the assault, all of which she stated publicly at the rally or was uncovered through a basic web search.

Vigorous debate has ensued, focused on a single question: Is it OK to publish a sexual assault victim’s name without consent if the victim identifies herself and tells her story at a public event, knowing press may be covering it?

Comment editors say yes, and thus far have declined requests to apologize or take down the article or the student’s name from its website: “The Comment doesn’t publish the names of sex crime victims without their consent.  But there is implied consent when someone speaks in a public forum, and . . . the whole meaning of the rally was to encourage victims of sexual assault to speak up and not live in shame.  Any information included in the article that [the student named in the piece] did not share at the rally was easily found by searching her name and looking at her publicly-accessible social media profiles.  This isn’t an invasion of privacy. It’s simple fact checking and good journalism.”

Others say no, including BSU administrators, the assault victim named in the piece, “organizers of the ‘Take Back The Night’ rally . . . [and] a slew of frat boys, sorority girls, and student government members.  As one student said at a BSU SGA meeting: “This is ethically and morally unacceptable and it needs to be changed.  I do understand and respect the freedom of press, but a victim’s right of privacy and safety needs to be foremost and be protected.”

A separate student, in a Comment letter to the editor: “I was greatly disturbed by the article. . . . [The student named in the piece] is my friend and [sorority] sister.  She is a courageous, smart, beautiful, and inspiring person.  If you knew her you would never call her a victim.  She is in no way a victim.  She is a survivor.  Also, I don’t believe you had any right to publish a photo, her story, or her name without her permission.  I understand your intentions, but they were poorly executed.  I really feel an apology should be issued to her and the entire campus.”

The student sexual assault victim: “I hoped to share my story and the empowering message that you can overcome it.  I was aware it was a public event, but I didn’t think anyone would take my story and publicize it.  I understand the freedom of speech and freedom of press, but there is a line that you shouldn’t cross.”

Meanwhile, the administration’s official response: “There’s absolutely no question in the university’s mind that the paper has the right to print what it wants.  But when there are questions of the validity of facts and when there are questions of the rights to privacy, that deserves a conversation.”

Comment editor-in-chief Mary Polleys is alleging that the university president also demanded the article be taken down from the website and unleashed numerous threats during a closed-door meeting.

The paper’s adviser Dave Copeland was then fired in a meeting held right after the tête-à-tête with Polleys.  Copeland’s termination appears to stem directly from the controversy over this piece and other unrelated Comment content, although it was accomplished through the enactment of a random new school policy.

Student Press Law Center executive director Frank LoMonte, in a letter to BSU’s president: “To be clear, if the board of trustees enacts a regulation with the purpose and effect of disqualifying Mr. Copeland form his adviser position, it is an inevitability that Bridgewater State University, its trustees, and you personally will be sued for violating the First Amendment and that you will lose.  It would be self-destructive and pointless to pursue such a course.”

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