Found du Lac High School student’s ‘rape culture’ article sparks free-speech debate
By Andrew Phillips
March 23, 2014
When Tanvi Kumar wrote an article about what she perceived as her high school’s casual attitude toward rape, she talked to victims of sexual assault, visited an abuse treatment center and combed through the article with her adviser before publishing it.
Still, she never thought that her story would be read aloud and discussed in Fond du Lac High School classes, or that a teacher would approach her in the halls with her own story of sexual violence.
“I was never prepared for something like that as a student,” said Kumar, a senior. “I think that just goes to show how powerful these topics can be.”
That power has reverberated through Fond du Lac this month. District administrators reacted to Kumar’s story by enacting a censorship policy, touching a nerve among students and faculty and leading to a controversy over First Amendment rights that has made waves in national forums.
Though they are not hopeful the policy will be changed, students plan to crowd a school board meeting Monday to continue pressing the issue, Kumar said.
In advance of that meeting, the school’s English department released a 22-page statement Friday urging the board to overturn the guidelines or at least re-write them with community input.
The story, titled “The Rape Joke,” was published in the February issue of Cardinal Columns, a student magazine produced through a journalism class. Kumar serves as the publication’s co-editor-in-chief.
It reported the stories of three sexual assault victims in the school, whose names were changed in the article, and documented the effects on victims of what the article referred to as a “rape culture” — including the prevalence of rape jokes and victim-blaming.
Initial feedback on the story was overwhelmingly positive, with teachers reading the article aloud in class and inviting discussion, Kumar said.
But on March 10, almost a month after the issue’s publication, principal Jon Wiltzius visited the print journalism class that produces the publication. He informed students that the district was implementing a quarter-century-old school board policy subjecting student publications to “school guidelines as determined by the principal.”
The guidelines, now in place for the first time, allow the principal to refuse to publish student work deemed to interfere with the educational process or other students’ rights or to align the school with a controversial political position. Work that is poorly written or researched, libelous or vulgar may also be withheld.
After Wiltzius’ announcement, students attended a March 10 school board meeting to ask about the new policy. None of the board members had heard of it at that point, said Kumar.
A petition to reverse the new policy, started by another student staff member, has attracted more than 5,000 signatures as of early Friday.
Superintendent James Sebert, who directed Wiltzius to create the guidelines, spoke to the journalism students on March 12 after Kumar published an open letter to him criticizing the policy.
He told students they had done nothing wrong but said they needed to collaborate more with the school’s administration, Kumar said.
“I had hoped we would get more of an explanation as to what he found so inappropriate or unsuitable for immature audiences,” she said. “I still don’t feel that I understand at this point.”
Sebert said the rape culture article and an editorial in the same issue informing students of their right not to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance raised questions in his mind. Sebert said he also took issue with a photo on the magazine’s first page, which showed a female student bare-shouldered, lying amid cardboard boxes and covered by a poster.
“Cardinal Columns is created as part of the print journalism class at Fond du Lac High School,” Sebert wrote in an emailed statement. “District resources are utilized and the publication represents the school and the district. (Prior review) is a reasonable expectation for a school-sponsored publication.”
Sebert did not respond to requests for personal comment, and calls to school board members were not returned.
Wiltzius and Sebert did not know about the article before it was published, Kumar said, but the paper’s adviser, journalism teacher Matthew Smith, edited it.
As for the photo, a previous Cardinal Columns issue had featured a shirtless male student on the cover, Kumar said, and administrators never complained.
Kumar said she was stirred to write the story after hearing rape jokes in school hallways and seeing what appeared to be a student-run Twitter account that poked fun at rape.
“I was appalled by that, and it upset me to the point that I felt like I had to say something or do something about it,” Kumar said.
Linda Selk-Yerges, director of the Fond du Lac sexual assault victims group ASTOP, said the organization has seen a significant increase in calls and walk-in visits since the article was published. The organization provided Kumar statistics and contacts for the story and was featured as a local resource.
As for the three sexual assault victims profiled in the story, none felt their anonymity had been compromised, Kumar said.
“I think they were really angry by the sudden shift in perception by the administration,” she said. “I don’t want (the new policy) to give off the impression that we want survivors to be silent after they’ve spoken up and shared their stories about some truly awful things in their lives.”
One of those survivors, who went by the pseudonym Sarah in the article, said she is glad the piece has encouraged other victims to share their stories.
“I always knew this would be a controversial article, but I hope people see good in it rather than how it is tainted by the administration,” Sarah wrote in prepared remarks. “Being silent should be a choice, not a requirement.”
A 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, allowed school districts some license to censor school-funded student publications. But that censorship still has to be educationally justifiable, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a national legal support group that has been in touch with the Fond du Lac students.
“This should be a no-brainer,” LoMonte said. “All of the legal considerations and all the educational considerations point in one direction. I can’t believe that a competent school lawyer is going to tell the board to stay the course and defend an indefensible decision.”
The law center would have no hesitation about taking the case to court, LoMonte said, but it views that as a “doomsday scenario.” LoMonte noted that the case is atypical because the censorship policy was enacted after the story in question was published.
“It is somewhat unusual that this occurs after the fact, especially when the story has been published with no ill effects,” LoMonte said. “It doesn’t seem like there’s anyone besides the superintendent that’s complaining that this is bad journalism.”
Kumar said even if the policy remains in place, the students will continue pursuing stories like “The Rape Joke.” They have even received offers to publish censored work elsewhere.
“We’re going to continue to write — maybe not publish, but write — cutting-edge pieces about issues we’re passionate about,” Kumar said. “If they choose not to include it, then we’ll have to go from there…. We’re never going to stop writing.”