Student paper tells staff not to share Facebook ‘solidarity statement’
The use of bananas in allegedly racist incidents at American University is not only roiling the university community – it’s creating divisions within the student newspaper.
Several staffers at The Eagle were upset when the newspaper’s leadership told them not to share a Facebook “solidarity statement” against racism on campus, according to a staffer who left.
That staffer told The College Fix that the top-down directive – intended to preserve The Eagle’s objectivity – was “unconstitutional” because it violated labor regulations.
An administration spokesperson declined to tell The Fix how it punished two alleged perpetrators in one banana incident. The school believes it can’t share “conduct outcomes” – even stripped of a student’s identity – under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Rotten banana and ‘drawing of a penis’
American University President Neil Kerwin, in his final year in office, wrote a memo to the community to condemn “two incidents of unacceptable student behavior” against African-American students that left the community “shaken, upset, and even feeling unsafe.”
Two white students were accused of throwing a banana at a black woman Sept. 8th. The other incident is murkier because the school has not confirmed rumors.
The same night, a rotten banana was left outside another black woman’s room and the culprit “defaced [her] white board with a drawing of a penis,” Naomi Zeigler, opinion editor for The Eagle, told The Fix in a Facebook message. Freshman Neah Gray identified herself as that student to The Washington Post.
Though he cautioned that he didn’t know what happened in the two incidents, the chair of the student government’s Judicial Board, Jon Shapiro, told The Fix in a Facebook message that “the rumors make reality.”
— Advancement Project (@adv_project) September 20, 2016
The “prevailing opinion” on campus is that at least one black female had a banana thrown at her, and that either that same student or a “separate student” had a rotten banana left at her door, “with a drawing of male genitalia left on her white board,” Shapiro said.
Kerwin said in his memo that the school will “confront racist expressions with forceful condemnation and respond to discrimination with every tool at our disposal,” and will “educate those who cause harm with their insensitivity and ignorance.”
FERPA hides ‘conduct outcomes’?
The president only said the perpetrators in the banana-throwing “have been held accountable,” without explaining their punishment. (A Sept. 16 bulletin said “conduct charges” had been filed by the dean of students.)
Many students have demanded the immediate suspension of the banana throwers.
“Federal law (FERPA) prevents us from releasing educational records without students’ permission and a specific waiver,” Camille Lepre, assistant vice president of communications, told The Fix in an email. “Conduct outcomes are educational records.”
Simply by confirming that “discipline was imposed,” under its own view, the school has already violated FERPA, according to SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte.
“Specifying the discipline imposed on unidentified students does not violate federal privacy law,” because “nothing private is being given away by informing the public of the measure of punishment,” LoMonte wrote. “The school can say more.”
In the second incident – the rotten banana left at the door – “the investigation is open and Public Safety has repeatedly appealed for anyone with information to come forward,” Lepre said. “No one has, and as yet, no perpetrators have been identified.”
‘We as reporters can’t share that status’ on Facebook
There have been two major reactions to The Eagle’s role in the banana blowback: one among the paper’s own staff, and the other in response to an op-ed by Shapiro, the Judicial Board chair.
The Eagle found itself dealing with an internal struggle after it told staffers not to share a viral Facebook status on their own personal pages.
The status reads:
I, [name], stand with the students of American University in their battle against discrimination, racism and violence against Black bodies, specifically Black females, on their campus and throughout this country. #SolidarityWithOurSisters
In a memo leaked by Shelby Morgan, a former staffer in the Scene section, Editor-in-Chief Kate Magill directed Eagle staffers – particularly those covering racism-related events – not to share the solidarity statement.
According to the leaked memo, The Eagle’s leadership believes that objectivity would be compromised if writers shared an anti-racism post.
“This was definitely censorship,” Morgan later told The Fix in a Facebook message, saying that “all reporters were told not to post about their solidarity.”
Magill has it backwards, Morgan said: “In my opinion, only reporters who are against racism should be able to report on these events because being a racist is what makes you biased and non-objective, simple as that.”
The Eagle has never before told reporters what they can’t say on their personal accounts, Morgan said: “Suddenly caring about censoring your reporters’ beliefs when it comes to supporting Black women is exactly how institutionalized racism manifests itself.”
She accused Eagle leadership of an “unconstitutional” action, explaining to The Fix that the National Labor Relations Board “has already issued policies regarding private sector employees’ rights” on social media.
— yj (@yamayeee) September 19, 2016
“[I]t is not lawful to control what employees say on their social media account, particularly if it’s not offensive, malicious, or inappropriate,” Morgan said: “The statement of ‘I don’t support racism’ is neither of these things and it is very unconstitutional of the Eagle to try and censor student reporters this way.”
Magill’s memo was posted in a private Facebook group, accessible only to staff at The Eagle. Morgan, a former multimedia editor, told The Fix she didn’t seek a resolution internally because “regular reporters” like her aren’t part of the editorial meetings.
Magill declined to comment to The Fix. Some reporters emphasized the memo was meant as an internal communication, not something to be dissected in the public eye.
Morgan said she’s faced pushback from her former colleagues for hurting The Eagle, with some accusing her of “ruining the paper’s reputation” and “causing drama.” Others have reached out to Morgan’s friends to convince her to take down her memo screenshots, she said.
Mostly, she perceives “a general coldness” from her ex-colleagues, but Morgan has no regrets.
“I thought it was necessary for students to know that the Eagle does not take an active stand against racism but does in fact play into a continuance of institutionalized racism.”
The left-wing version of ‘Trumpism’
In his op-ed, Judicial Board chair Shapiro said the student body’s vindictive response to the banana incidents shows that it is “awash with Trumpism.”
The kind of “Trumpism” he means is “the ‘outsider’ mentality that insists that anyone in a position of authority is wrong,” Shapiro wrote: Students should let the conduct process play out before criticizing it.
— Abrara (@Abrara_Rageh) September 19, 2016
“Do not assume that the University will fail you because you disagree with them,” he wrote: “One day, you may be on the other end of a conduct process. And trust me, you’ll want them to be as impartial then as they are now.”
Shapiro later told The Fix that the “Trumpism” line was “intentionally inflammatory” but “still factually valid” as applied to campus protesters.
Many students reacted negatively to the article online. “I mean I kinda try to refrain from throwing bananas at black people,” one commenter quipped at the notion that an innocent person could be accused.
“Why is The Eagle so opposed to publishing good content?” another asked.
The Eagle published several other articles and op-eds on the issue. One argued in favor of changing the student conduct code to amplify penalties for actions deemed “hate crimes.” Another thanked students who stood in solidarity and said that their movement against racism was winning.
Several hundred students have participated in protests this month. They were preceded by other high-profile racially charged incidents: an appearance by gay conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos this spring and racist messages posted on the anonymous social-media app Yik Yak last fall, which birthed a protest hashtag, #TheRealAU.
— Bradley Cannon (@BradAsCanBe) September 19, 2016
“I think this is a cumulation of lots of anger and hurt that’s built in the community for several years now,” The Eagle’s Zeigler said. Students are seeing “the losses of marginalized people’s lives” in America: “If they see people like them being harassed or hurt physically, they feel a sense of fear.”
UPDATE: The headline has been changed to incorporate American University’s response to a Fix request to disclose the disciplinary actions taken against two alleged perpetrators. The university’s fuller response and a counterpoint have been incorporated in the body of the article.