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Utah college quickly reverses edict to remove newspaper sex column

January 18, 2013

UTAH — A Utah college dean has decided against banning an opinion column about sexual behavior after initially exerting editorial control over the newspaper’s content.

William Christensen, dean of Dixie State College’s School of Business and Communication, emailed a letter Friday to Rhiannon Bent, an associate professor and faculty adviser for The Dixie Sun News, explaining he had done "some additional research and feel I should back-off a little from my previous comments."

"I understand the legal precedent regarding student newspapers is that colleges are not liable for the content of their student press," Christensen wrote. “The students themselves may be liable, and are certainly answerable to the public, but that is their concern and not that of the college.”

Three days earlier, he had emailed a letter to Bent insisting two articles written by Katie McKellar and published online Jan. 9 and 11 be deleted immediately. As a representative of the university, he wrote, he views himself as "a sort of 'executive editor.'"

"This communication is not meant to criticize your work or the work of our students, it is simply an executive editorial check to ensure our publications are consistent with our mission and values," Christensen wrote. "Therefore, I hope you and your students understand this is an exercise in editorial control, and not one of censorship.”

He cited concerns that the subject of sex could create a "hostile work environment" for some students who may feel uncomfortable discussing such topics.

Dixie Sun News Editor-in-Chief Matty Jacobson, however, said when the university president contacted him after receiving a complaint about the column from an irate parent, he was not shy about sharing it. 

"We directed him to read the article," Jacobson said. "We weren’t afraid of letting the president read the article."

Jacobson said the day after the call from the president, when the newspaper received the dean's letter demanding nothing further on the subject be published, he still decided to keep the article online anyway. 

"I am going to stand strong and say we’re not ... spouting hate or being defamatory in any way," he said Friday before receiving Christensen's reversal. "We’re just talking about sex."

But McKellar’s first column, entitled “Erotic Topic: Sex Sinful In Eyes Of Beholder,” garnered some unfavorable comments online and Jacobson said some students complained to administrators. The column addressed several forms of sexual behavior — including prostitution, rape, pedophilia and masturbation — and various stigmas society applies to them.

McKellar, a junior communications major and photo editor of the newspaper, said she wasn’t entirely sure why the dean had a change of heart, but the stubbornness of the staff surely helped.

"We kind of resisted, and said, 'you can’t tell us to do that,'" she said. "Maybe he realized there were no policies that told him he had editorial control [over student media]."

Jacobson said the dean’s reversal was "totally unexpected."

"It went really well," Jacobson said of the dialogue with administration. "It was a complete 180. Everything I wanted to happen, happened."

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer. Reach Moore byemail or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127. 

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© 2013 Student Press Law Center

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