After a controversial column in Chico State’s student publication, an outraged professor wrote a obscenity-laced series of Facebook posts personally attacking the student columnist. Meanwhile, anonymous critics dubbed the newspaper the “Rape Apologist News” and sent the student columnist a message urging him to commit suicide.
The May 10 column, written by student reporter Roberto Fonseca, questioned the existence of rape culture, systemic racism and non-male and non–female gender identities. The column specifically criticized the university’s Gender and Sexuality Equity Center (GSEC), saying it was “spreading false information to other members of the community” and “causing harm to people instead of helping.”
Fonseca tells Heat Street he’s a registered Democrat who supported Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the last election cycle. The column was “just something that had popped into my head during one of our editing meetings,” he said. “I really didn’t have any malicious intentions behind it. I just wanted to criticize ideas, and it’s bad ideas that come out of GSEC.”
Fonseca’s column outraged Lindsay Briggs, an assistant professor in the Health and Community Services Department who sits on the GSEC advisory board. In a Facebook post, she called the Orion a “sh*tty school newspaper [that] published a garbage ‘opinion’ piece by a repugnant student.” She also wrote, “F*ck you, Roberto Fonseca,” adding in another post that he was a “sh*tty student.”
“I called the Faculty Advisor, the Chair of the Department of Journalism and the Editor of the paper to express my dissatisfaction and RIGHTEOUS ANGER about the piece. … When I speak, I speak loudly, forcefully and often with many, many profane words. I make no apologies for that. Not now, not ever, and have no intention of changing that. … So when I shared my thoughts on the garbage ‘opinion’ piece laced with swear words, a harsh tone, and set to public, it was intentional. Calculated you could say,” Briggs wrote.
She also added that because of the column and her response, there were “a lot of people talking about the student journalist’s right to publish sh*tty articles and whether hate speech should be considered free speech.”
In another post, Briggs wrote: “If you value free speech more than the well-being, dignity and respect of your fellow students, PARTICULARLY those who are marginalized…well, in my OPINION, y’all are just sh*tty, awful people.”
Briggs did not respond to emailed questions by deadline.
New America Media reported that 600 copies of the newspaper containing Fonseca’s column had been thrown in the trash; the student newspaper’s faculty adviser did not respond by deadline to our media inquiry. Fonseca also sent us a photo of a sign taped to the door of the student newspaper, dubbing the Orion the “Rape Apologist News.”
Fonseca also showed Heat Street one of the messages he received after the column’s publication, which urged him to “kill yourself you ignorant piece of sh*t.”
By deadline, the advisers for GSEC did not respond to Heat Street’s request for comment. The group also did not answer questions about whether its members had thrown away copies of the newspaper or threatened the columnist.
In a column in the Orion, GSEC defended its mission. GSEC said that it would not attempt to “refute Fonseca’s statistics with more statistics,” adding that his points were false, and “irrefutable evidence is easily discoverable online, backed by a plethora of reputable sources.”
The group said, “We do not intend to restrict free speech, but rather to foster a sense of learning and respect for many lived truths.” But it also added that “words, language and stories like Fonseca’s have the capacity to incite violence, prevent survivors from reporting their sexual assaults, and create an unwelcoming environment.”
Calling the Orion’s behavior unethical, GSEC urged the journalism department to require students to take a class in public affairs reporting, which would include training in “specialized reporting and ethics.”
In an editorial, the Orion defended publishing Fonseca’s piece, which is the most-viewed article of the year.
“Despite what many comments and letters to the editor said, no one should be fired, silenced or have harm done to them for their opinions,” the editorial said. “The right to think independently is the greatest asset that America provides, and opposing that freedom creates a real danger. … College is not and never should be a ‘safe space’ where students are sheltered from opinions different from their own.”
Chico State’s president also weighed in on the controversy, saying in a statement that Fonseca had the right to free speech. “However,” she added, “the views expressed in the article do not reflect the values of our university.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.