This is the first in a two-part series. Part 2 on Chico State’s political climate will be posted June 9.
by Leslie Layton
On a recent Wednesday, Chico State journalism professor Mark Plenke was messaged that he should check the campus newspaper racks. The student-run weekly newspaper, The Orion, had come out earlier that day, and an opinion column was already producing a stream of angry social media responses.
Plenke, the faculty adviser to The Orion, found some 600 newspapers missing from racks in Tehama and Butte halls and rescued them from nearby garbage and recycling bins. The May 10 column by student journalist Roberto Fonseca, “Debunking GSEC Myths,” had already inspired a newspaper theft and was on the verge of sparking a campus debate that would veer from angry threats to culture-wars name-calling to thoughtful discussion.
The column had been a sweeping attempt to take on what Plenke calls “hot-button issues” popular with conservatives — in only about 500 words. Fonseca argued that “systemic racism” doesn’t exist, that there are only two genders, and that the student-run Gender & Sexual Equity Center (GSEC) was promulgating false notions about “rape culture.” In fact, Fonseca wrote, rape culture doesn’t exist, either.
Soon, Fonseca, a 20-year-old junior who is finding his voice as a conservative columnist, was under fire for his writing skills, his choice of sources, his analysis. Before the week was out, a sign had been hung on the newspaper’s office door re-branding the paper “Rape Apologist News,” and he had received two social media messages threatening violence.
At times, the discussion at Chico State has echoed the campus debates nationwide when speech is perceived as offensive, tapping into a well of anger. But it’s also a story about a community’s frustration with its student paper and how journalism is often conducted in an era of polarized politics.
Some Orion critics say the column fits into what is now a pattern of irresponsible journalism, and they want more from the paper – more accuracy, more sensitivity, more listening.
Fonseca, who the staff named opinion editor for the coming academic year, said his column wasn’t meant to be “malicious.”
“Any sane person looking at this column knows it wasn’t meant to incite violence against anybody,” Fonseca said. “I was just trying to critique some ideas.”
But GSEC warned that articles can incite violence by reinforcing prejudice.
Rachel Ward, the student director of GSEC, said there’s a feeling on campus that “he didn’t write that article to open up an honest discourse, that it was written to purposely hurt and piss off a lot of people, especially in the political climate we live in.”
Lindsay Briggs, a human sexuality professor, was one of the readers who viewed the column as “hate speech.” Briggs said the column was itself an act of violence because it “dismisses peoples’ identities,” and describing herself to this reporter as “loud and boisterous,” led a brazen challenge.
“Fuck you, Roberto Fonseca,” she wrote in the first of several public Facebook posts about the column. Later, in Facebook conversations, she refers to him as “some garbage student” and “repugnant” and “shitty.”
The narrative took other forms depending on where on campus the story was told. Some journalism faculty say the article prompted a productive if painful discussion about free speech and gender and race. But to some university staff, the column reflects the view that The Orion, in a time of sweeping change, has lost its footing.
“Culture of alternative facts”
The campus paper is a cornerstone of Chico State’s journalism program, having won a dozen national Pacemaker awards for general excellence. The staff works out of a basement office in Plumas Hall, and every week, after a new edition is published, receives a written critique by Plenke. But the adviser refrains from pre-publication intervention in keeping with state law that gives public high school and college students the right to freedom from censorship.
As the “opinion section conservative” on the paper during spring semester, Plenke believes Fonseca was “blindsided” by the response to the GSEC column. Earlier columns, Plenke said, made people “upset” but not “inflamed.”
In a March 25 column, Fonseca links terrorism to the Islamic faith, and says, “This is a religion that isn’t afraid to kill people for speaking out against their beliefs.”
By the end of May, the online version of Fonseca’s GSEC column had about 19,000 page views, making it the most viewed article for the year, according to The Orion’s May 16 editorial. The column had easily superseded – in terms of readership and certainly attention — news stories like a spring semester investigation into the costs of deferred maintenance at the university.
In the aftermath, there were reports that alumni threatened to withhold donations and calls for the adviser to undertake more active advising. And there was Briggs, who said she’d refuse interviews and otherwise refrain from collaborating with the paper, “so long as Roberto remains on staff and the Orion continues to peddle trash such as this.”
Briggs reported on Facebook that the parents of a prospective student saw her posts, contacted university President Gayle Hutchinson, and declared that their child wouldn’t attend Chico State. Hutchinson then released a statement and called Briggs to a meeting to remind her that her social media posts reflect on the university.
Some of the 242 comments responding to the column online were sarcastic, some thoughtful, some supportive of Fonseca’s views. Some pointed to examples of scholarly research that gender is more complex than Fonseca indicated and racism is often systemic.
Online, Fonseca’s column links to research from mainstream media sources that provide facts, like the higher unemployment rates among Latinos and blacks compared to whites. He also cites sources that fall within the conservative mainstream, a right-leaning think tank and the journal “LifeSiteNews” that’s packed with propaganda and founded by a lobbyist group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.
The right-wing sources seem to help him justify the leap to his conclusions, such as, systemic racism “is another myth put out by GSEC members that is widely accepted,” and, “Latinos and African Americans are falling behind by choosing to believe in racism instead of hard work.”
Katie Peterson, program coordinator at the university’s Cross-Cultural Leadership Center, said the column had no foundation in sound research, and, yet, The Orion staff has access to professional journalists for guidance.
“We’re allowing for a culture of alternative facts,” Peterson said. “The amount of hurt that was caused is ridiculous.”
Plenke defended Fonseca’s right to use conservative media sources – even though he says he had talked to the writer earlier in the semester about sourcing.
“It’s not uncommon for conservative commentators like Roberto to call on the sources he’s familiar with from the conservative side of the spectrum,” Plenke said. “I think there’s a legitimate argument about framing and the use of facts. I don’t happen to agree with most of what Roberto said, but that doesn’t give me the right to deny him the ability to frame an argument the way he wants to.
“I don’t think his tone is out of the mainstream for conservative speech right now,” Plenke added.
Plenke decided not to report the newspaper theft because tempers were “hot” and a police report would further “inflame things.”
“Eventually, this drifted into more of a discussion about whether speech like that should be allowed, whether the column should have been published, whether editors fell down on the job,” he said.
The Orion’s outgoing Editor-in-Chief Carly Plemons couldn’t be reached despite several requests by ChicoSol for a brief statement.
Fonseca is the son of Nicaraguan immigrants and hails from Los Angeles. On May 17, after a week of intense scrutiny, he was interviewed by ChicoSol at City Plaza. A few days earlier, he said a journalism instructor had referred to his column as “fake news” and then led a heated class discussion about its content. Fonseca had been interviewed on the local nightly news.
Because of the class discussion, Fonseca said he now understood more clearly the phrase “rape culture.” He said he was wrong when he wrote that gender and sex are synonymous, wrong to tackle so much in a small space. But he said his conclusions were unchanged, just not supported well. “I acknowledge that my arguments probably weren’t the best,” he said.
He had read professor Briggs’ Facebook posts and appeared bewildered by them. “She says she hates me,” he said. “It sounds so personal.”
The Briggs offensive
On the Wednesday that Fonseca’s column was published, Lindsay Briggs was on fire.
In a May 17 interview in her Butte Hall office, Briggs, who sits on the GSEC advisory board but doesn’t speak for the student-run organization, explained why Fonseca’s column was a personal affront. “This student has written several inflammatory articles all year that were terribly written and super-offensive, but they weren’t attacking anybody,” she said. “In this one, he utilized GSEC throughout.”
“As a queer person who is up close and personal with violence,” she told ChicoSol, “I see it day in and day out. I see the real effects of verbal violence all the time. I see the real effects of sexual assault and rape culture. Especially on this campus, where we do know that sexual assaults happen.”
After she read Fonseca’s column, she contacted journalism faculty, who explained that they don’t run the paper. She contacted the editors, who defended the column. That night, she said on Facebook that she had “pleasant but underwhelming” conversations with the journalism department. She announced her Orion boycott and encouraged other faculty to follow suit.
GSEC, Briggs pointed out, is a program run by five students that has far less institutional support than does The Orion. “I don’t think it’s fair to say, ‘Let’s let The Orion staff and the GSEC staff fight it out.’ That’s a denial of the systems of power in place.”
Briggs doesn’t believe in unlimited free speech in general, but she said she doesn’t object to Fonseca’s First Amendment right to speak about his beliefs – as long as The Orion is not the platform.
“One of the things that’s really harmful right now,” Briggs said, “is the idea that all ideas are valid and equal. That’s intellectually dishonest. Everybody’s right to an opinion has now become ‘all opinions are equal.’”
A tense climate, an impatient community
In the last edition of spring semester, The Orion published an editorial, “Campuses must choose between safe space or free speech.” It cast the Chico State debate as one of many campus debates around the country pitting free speech against the right to critique or mock what college communities call “safe spaces.”
“To promote ‘safe spaces,’ speech is being suppressed,” the editorial states.
The editorial did not respond to critics who said Fonseca’s thesis hadn’t been well argued or to those who said that it was harmful to students who already feel vulnerable to verbal and physical attack. It didn’t address the fact that Fonseca says he didn’t fully understand some underlying concepts.
The paper also published three pages of letters to the editor about the column and a one-page op-ed by GSEC. (The op-ed wasn’t included in the paper’s online edition until someone contacted The Orion.)
Plenke, who agreed that he’s a “First Amendment absolutist,” applauded the editors, who he said “made the resources of the paper available to people who didn’t like the column.”
“Their point of view matches my point of view, which is we need to have more speech, not less,” Plenke said. “While it hurts everybody’s stomach to have this level of anger, it did prompt some serious discussions on campus.”
But some students and staff resented the reliance on the First Amendment argument.
The president, Hutchinson, had already come down squarely on the side of free speech, although in her statement she attempted to distance the university from Fonseca’s column. “…the views expressed in the article in question do not reflect the values of our University,” she wrote.
Although GSEC calls itself a “safe space,” offering a place of support for marginalized students, Ward was incensed by The Orion’s editorial, arguing that it presented a false dichotomy and that she objected far more to Fonseca’s research methods than his opinions.
“I’m particularly offended by an editorial that suggests that safe spaces and free speech can’t co-exist,” she said. “We’re not negating his right to free speech — we would never go there.”
In her May 17 op-ed, Ward focused on a call to the journalism department and The Orion to hold its writers to “higher standards.” Ward said the paper needs to take measures to “restoring the trust that many students, faculty, and staff have lost in ‘The Orion’ in recent years due to a pattern of irresponsible and inaccurate reporting.”
Some in the campus community say that increased tension since the November election had made Fonseca’s columns particularly difficult to stomach. “Things have felt heightened,” Ward said. “The election has given a lot of people permission to be prejudiced in an explicit way. Students of color or who are queer or transgender have experienced firsthand slurs and have had rocks thrown at them.”
Some university staff members indicate they’re out of patience. After the publication of Fonseca’s column, the Student Health Center told The Orion that it no longer wants to be a distribution point for the paper, said Jill Cannaday, nursing supervisor. Cannaday said she was told that the health center can’t opt out by law, so when a bundle of the May 17 edition arrived, the papers were left “behind the counter” and “available upon request.”
Cannady said she wants the center to be a welcoming “safe space” for students from many “walks of life,” including sexual assault survivors. She plans to revisit the distribution issue in the fall.
At the Cross-Cultural Leadership Center, Program Director CC Carter said he no longer reads the paper. “From a diversity standpoint, every semester they do something that hurts and pisses off my students,” Carter said.
Two interviewees pointed to an April 2016 video The Orion posted – and that has never been removed from its website — of Cesar Chavez Day interviews with drinking students as culturally offensive and shoddy journalism.
Journalism faculty say the paper’s independence is key to its “learning laboratory” features. Still, Susan Wiesinger, chair of the Department of Journalism & Public Relations, said it “pained” her to defend the GSEC column.
“The column was not particularly well written or carefully sourced and that is a poor reflection on the program,” she wrote in an email statement to ChicoSol. “…it’s peer-led, experiential learning. There will be mistakes and missteps. Our responsibility as a faculty is to take those teachable moments into the classroom and help the students figure out what could be done better or differently as they learn their professional skills.”
In the view of Plenke, the GSEC column produced, beside a campus discussion, growth on the part of Fonseca, who has inched away from certainty in some of the beliefs he expressed in the column.
But for many members of the campus community, the discussion opportunities that presented themselves came at a time when their patience was exhausted or thin. For GSEC and many of its supporters, they came without regard for some of the university’s most vulnerable minority groups.
Leslie Layton wrote this story with support from New America Media’s Tracking Hate fellowship program. She retired from part-time teaching in the Chico State journalism department nine years ago. Layton is editor of ChicoSol.