THE sign

Some administrators at Humboldt State are in a bit of an uproar over a recent photo printed in the “Dumberjack” insert of the award-winning and student-run Lumberjack newspaper. The photograph was of a sign that read “Why is Humboldt County like a vagina? Once it’s wet it’s time to go inside.” The sign was made by a group of female students that live in the College Creek Apartments on campus. 

The “Dumberjack” is part of a parody news class taught by Associate Professor Deidre Pike. Stories featured in the insert include parodies and satires of the recent power outages, the HSU police chief’s purported racist comments and a story poking fun at protestors who do it solely for the glamor of public perception.

The pushback from the administration came almost a week after the paper hit the stands. A campus-wide email was sent out by Interim Provost Lisa Bond-Maupin on Monday, November 25 calling the sign a “sexist ‘riddle’” and charging that its publication was “derogatory and reproduce[s] a culture of gender-based discrimination.” 

“This decision to feature this photo contradicts and undermines the inclusive, consent-based, and survivor-centered culture we are working to co-create on campus,” Bond-Maupin wrote. “There is no reconciling this contradiction and there is no justification for sexist communication in our campus community.”

I should come right out and say that my objectivity on this is kinda fucked. I am a journalism student at HSU, and I have classes with some of the students, and I am taught by the professor caught up in the controversy. But as a working journalist I was interested in not only finding out why a complaint was filed and by whom (students or administrators), but also why such strong language was used in condemning the students.

I think we are in an interesting time when it comes to journalism. There are attacks from the Right, by people like the Vulgarian-in-Chief, and from the Left.

Attacks from the Right come in the form of calling the press liars and saying they shouldn’t be believed, coupled with threats of jailing journalists. Attacks from the Left come in the form of saying certain types of messages shouldn’t be printed at all because they may offend a certain group.

But parody news and satire can offend. It brings to the surface issues that are tough to talk about and is made to get people riled up. But that riling up seems to be a step too far at times, especially on college campuses. 

Recently the student paper at Northwestern University pulled photos and quotes from students who attended a public protest. These students told the editor-in-chief of the student paper that they were being “re-traumatized” by seeing themselves in the paper and online. The student paper at Harvard University also caught flak for reaching out to the Immigration, Customs and Enforcement agency for a comment about an immigration protest. A petition circulated across campus urging the student government representatives to not talk to the paper until they change the way they report. The Harvard Democrats released a similar statement. 

And so when I wrote earlier about “attacks from the Left,” what I am referring to is that sort of PC or “woke” culture that tries to rein in what is and is not funny or appropriate. They try to stop, outright, the publication of anything that may be offensive and use a dialog of morality and victimization to justify it. 

Don’t get me wrong: There is nothing funny about rape, rape culture or the patriarchal domination of the world that has forced women to be subservient to men. But I think the criticisms about the sign and the accusations that it is sexist or that it contradicts “consent-based” culture are a bit much. What the administration is implying here is that the photo supports or promotes rape culture.

What I find interesting about this incident is that there is outrage over a photo of a sign made by women talking about female anatomy. (I understand that there are gender non-conforming folks out there who may also have a vagina.) 

Furthermore, that the outrage is aimed at a parody news insert. 

I was told Bond-Maupin never reached out to the students about the photo in question. Instead, she wrote that she was inviting the student satirists to meet with the Dean of Students and the Co-Chairs of the HSU Sexual Assault Prevention Committee. That “invitation” was more of a demand as you will read later. I spoke with one of the students in the parody news class and she was upset about how the events have unfolded. 

“Honestly, I just felt blindsided and am disappointed by our administration,” she told me. “I view Humboldt as a building block to my future, so it was shocking to see this response.” 

She went on to say that she wasn’t prepared at all for the accusations that the photo was sexist. 

“The picture is controversial,” she said. “However, I think a group of females curating the sign, in an all-female dormitory, and the picture being taken by a female, changes the dynamic.”

A fateful meeting did in fact go down, and 12 of the 14 students enrolled in the Parody News Class were in attendance. Eboni Turnbow, HSU’s dean of students, and Kim Berry, chair of the Sexual Assault Prevention Committee, showed up in their class at around 11:30 a.m. Thursday. Pike invited Berry to the class that day, but Turnbow was not invited. In fact, she was explicitly asked not to attend by the Vicky Sama, chair of the journalism department. 

In an email obtained by the Outpost, Sama had written: “The students are feeling threatened and are defensive about how the administration is handling this. I have every faith that Deidre can and will provide the best education for these students in her class. And I ask that Lisa, Ebony [sic] and Kim do NOT attend tomorrow’s class. No offense to you personally, but this type of action will likely not result in a positive experience for our students. Ironically, your effort to protect students who told you they were upset with the sign that females created in an all-women’s dorm and your solution to appear in class, which is apparently intimidating students, however unintended, seems counter-productive. You may help one group by threatening the other. A conundrum for certain. No one disagrees that conversations about editorial choices are important. The class is having those conversations without you just fine.”

In a response, Turnbow brushed off Sama’s recommendation and said, “I truly think this is blown way outside of the scope and I am not sure why. No is planning [sic] to anyone what they can or can’t say, no one is taking away their papers and locking them up. We indicated we were going to have a conversation with the students and Deidre and with all due respect we plan to uphold that.”

As she would later tell the journalism students, Turnbow wanted the meeting because a dozen or so students had come to her office crying, and she had to console them. Afterward, she reached out to Bond-Maupin, who reached out to Pike. 

I attended the class and watched as my peers worked on an assignment and put together a class playlist that epitomizes parody and satire. Songs were mentioned and compiled in a list, but some were deleted before Turnbow and Berry got there because of how they may be perceived. 

This itself is a form of censorship. Censorship takes many form, the most common being fear of retaliation from those in power.

The vibes in the classroom changed once Turnbow and Berry entered. Discussion started easy, with Turnbow and Berry introducing themselves and telling students what they hoped to get out of the meeting. 

“We are swimming in a sea of cultural norms that have legitimated systems of inequality,” Berry said. She said she was there because she views the student journalists as leaders in the campus community.

This elicited a response from a student in the class who said, “Our job is to be a voice of the community and not a leader of the community.” 

I agree with this. There are two schools of thought when it comes to journalism. One is influenced by Noam Chomsky, who says the role of the media is to act as a check on governmental power and who believes in an open and democratized press. The other is influenced by Walter Lippmann, who believed the “common interests” of a society were too big of a concept for the public to handle; therefore the media must act as a “specialized class” because the public is a “bewildered herd” and “must be put in their place.” This is essentially saying that the role of the media is to set the standards for the community — something I disagree with. I am not here to shape public opinion or “manufacture consent.” I am here to shine a spotlight on corruption and to be a mouthpiece for the people in the community. And you can say that story and source selection can fall under the realm of crafting narratives, but in a community as small as Humboldt I don’t think that is really a thing. 

During the classroom discussion, Berry went on to say that journalists have to make ethical decisions that either reinforce systems of power or challenge them. 

I agree with Berry on this. Journalists should challenge systems of power. But we are talking about a photo of a fucking sign printed in a parody news insert in a student newspaper. 

“You can give me any news article and I could dash off any sort of analysis,” Berry continued. 

That’s awesome, but once again it is a fucking photo of a sign. The students didn’t make the damn sign. Part of journalism is to document the everyday lives and happenings of the people in our community and this sign is a part of that. Just because a relatively small number of students were offended and a professor from another department with a six-figure salary and Ph. D degree can apply feminist and queer theory to a fucking sign shouldn’t justify the students in the class being called sexist or the suggestion that they undermine “inclusive, consent-based, and survivor-centered culture.” 

As the meeting that day continued, a number of the students said they felt intimidated by the administration, and this prompted a student to speak up.

Michael Weber, a journalism student, attended the meeting to show support for his peers. He commented about how he fears that the campus-wide email may affect journalism students as a whole.

“As a journalism student, when I read that initial email, the first thing I worried about is, ‘What are my 7,000 other colleagues going to think about journalists now?’” Weber said. “ [Other students] will now have a perception of journalists and it all kind of compiles. We read it from Trump who inspires other people.” 

So like I said, attacks from the Right and attacks from the Left. One calls us liars and the other says we do not know what is moral.

The meeting continued and other students voiced concerns to Turnbow that ranged from their worries about censorship to whether the students who made the sign had been talked to. Turnbow admitted that she initially reached out to housing about talking to the students who had made the sign, but she had not followed up. 

If Turnbow or Berry were hoping for a happy outcome, that definitely did not happen. The meeting ended with Sama reminding Turnbow that she asked her not to come because she feared the students would be intimidated. And that’s what happened. 

When it was over, Turnbow and Berry walked awkwardly out of the room. There were tears in the eyes of a number of students. They hugged and embraced each other and stood by their decision to print the photo. They said they were proud of each other. 

After the meeting I chatted with Dean Bond-Maupin about some of the things discussed in the meeting, as well as some other issues. I asked her how she felt about the sign, and she said that her email to the student body encapsulated her feelings. 

“So you do feel that it is sexist and supports rape culture?” I asked her.

“Yeah, I do,” Bond-Maupin said. 

I brought up the fact that some female students expressed their concerns about not being able to talk about their bodies in a way that they want to, and feared they were being condemned for it. She replied, “I would never want to condemn anyone for talking about their own bodies.” 

“But you did,” I responded. “You called it sexist and said it supports rape culture.” 

Bond-Maupin said that was my interpretation of the email and I replied it was not my interpretation. She called the sign sexist and said it supports rape culture. 

She responded by saying, “I would never want them to feel that they could not talk about their own bodies.”

As far as sending out the email before contacting the students, Bond-Maupin said “there was an agreement among the administrative team at the university that our response was needed sooner rather than later.”

I asked if in hindsight she would change her decision to send out an email before contacting the journalism students. 

“I think that it would have been really terrific to have an opportunity to talk it through with the students at the same time,” she said. 

One of the purposes of parody and satire is to bring tough topics to the surface, to start a discussion about potentially offensive things. I asked Bond-Maupin if the students succeeded in doing that. 

“I don’t know,” she said.

But here we are talking about sexism and rape culture. I think it is a huge fucking success because we now have the opportunity to talk about rape and consent here in Humboldt County. 

Just because a vagina is wet, it does not mean it is time to enter and consent is most definitely a thing that can be revoked at any time. Supporting survivors is most definitely something we should all do and if anyone is in need of help they can reach out to the North Coast Rape Crisis Team at 707-445-2881.

But implying that the sign in question promotes a society or culture that is fine with rape is absurd. I think there has been way too much thought put into what the sign does and does not mean or imply.

I think this whole dilemma about the sign is truly blown out of proportion. As a journalism student, I am a bit offended that the administration did not reach out to the students involved before sending out the condemnation. 

The administration did not go through the appropriate measures to respond to the image, which in my opinion would have been a letter to the editor. Instead they put the students “on blast” and called their classwork sexist and implied it supports rape culture. 

This sort of accusation forces people to have to defend free speech from an awkward position. I have to either shut up and listen to my peers get called sexist and supportive of rape culture or defend them and face similar accusations. 

I think this is an instance where the “woke” or PC culture has gone a step too far. Condemning the journalists for running a photo is bogus. Our job is to represent the community as we see it and on that day, my peers saw a sign about wet weather and vaginas. So a photo was taken. 

Long live the sign, long live the Dumberjack, and long live the First Amendment.