Employees from Chico State’s Student Health Center may have violated state law last semester when they removed all copies of the student newspaper after it published an article they deemed offensive, according to internal email correspondence reviewed exclusively by Heat Street.
The op-ed, written by student reporter Roberto Fonseca and published by The Orion in May, criticized Chico State’s Gender and Sexuality Equity Center. Fonseco also challenged the existence of rape culture, systemic racism, and non-binary gender identities.
California law prohibits “the unauthorized taking of multiple copies of free newspapers,” especially “done… to deprive others of the opportunity to read them.” Such behavior “injures the rights of readers, writers, publishers, and advertisers, and impoverishes the marketplace of ideas in California,” state statute says.
But the day after Fonseca’s article ran, the Student Health Center’s nursing supervisor, Jill Cannaday, informed the Student Health Center staff that she and Dr. Deborah Stewart, the medical chief of staff, had removed all copies of the Orion from their lobby “for fear their articles may trigger a patient waiting in our reception area.”
Cannaday specifically referenced “the awful op-ed piece” about the Gender and Sexual Equity Center, which she said “involved negative stereotypes about gender and culture.”
“Please note that we are not attempting to stifle free speech but rather we are looking to keep the health center as trigger free as possible and to continue to keep the atmosphere one of inclusivity and affirmation,” Cannaday wrote in a May 11 email.
Fonseca, the student who wrote the controversial article, said the Student Health Center was clearly trying to silence him.
“I didn’t know health centers had a political agenda,” Fonseca told Heat Street. “What would happen if someone got triggered? Has there ever been a real case in which someone reading an article has a panic attack of some sort because of dissenting opinions? Load of crap.”
At least two other Chico State employees applauded this possible illegal removal of newspapers.
“Thank you for this. I appreciate it,” wrote Melissa Hormann, a nurse in the Student Health Center.
“OMG. This is amazing. I love you. You’re the best. THANK YOU!!!” wrote Lindsay Briggs, an assistant professor in the Health and Community Services Department. As Heat Street reported last month, Briggs also publicly denounced the student reporter on Facebook, calling him “a repugnant student” and a “sh*tty student,” also writing, “F*ck you Roberto Fonseca.”
Further emailed correspondence from within Chico State’s Journalism and Public Relations Department, described how “several hundred copies” of The Orion had been removed from news boxes on campus.
That was “an extreme, illegal response by any measure, wrote Susan McMahon Wiesinger, the department chair. Describing the controversy as “a bit of a perfect storm,” she said The Orion’s leadership decided not to pursue charges or file a police report “in an effort to de-escalate the situation.”
By deadline, Cannaday did not respond to Heat Street’s request for comment.
Email correspondence from Chico State’s Journalism and Public Relations Department also showed concerns that the university would not protect free speech.
“Various faculty are labeling Roberto’s column as hate speech,” Wiesenger wrote. “Two faculty members I spoke with—both of whom claim close ties to the president—said they do not support the First Amendment, don’t support unfettered free speech on campus and are questioning the need for an independent, student-run newspaper on campus. … The university’s Public Affairs Office, led by one of our news alumni, is (and has been) openly criticizing The Orion and has the ear of the administration.”
The president of Chico State, Gayle Hutchinson, issued a statement about Fonseca’s column. “We respect the opinion writer’s right to free speech,” she said. “However, the views expressed in the article do not reflect the values of our University.”
In an email to her colleagues, Wiesinger wrote, “I do not think President Hutchinson’s response landed solidly in support of free speech on campus.”
Wiesinger told Heat Street that the semester ended very shortly after the controversy over Fonseca’s op-ed ignited.
“At this point, my mind is well detached from the situation,” she told us in an email, “so it would be hard to say much other than that free speech has been, is, and will continue to be one of Chico State Journalism & PR’s closest-held values.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.