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American University newspaper apologizing for date-rape column

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By Jenna Johnson and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The American University student newspaper said Tuesday it would issue an apology for publishing a column that called date rape "an incoherent concept." The column sparked angry online responses from scores of students, and a handful of students demonstrated outside the newspaper's offices.

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"We realize that this column was probably not -- no, it was not -- in the best taste," Jen Calantone, editor in chief of the Eagle, said Tuesday. "The column offended a lot of people, and as a human being, that upsets me."

The column, "Dealing with AU's anti-sex brigade," was written by sophomore Alex Knepper, whose views have infuriated students before. In the column, which appeared in the newspaper Monday, Knepper wrote that any woman who attends a fraternity party, has five drinks and goes back to a man's room "is indicating that she wants sex" and should not "cry 'date rape' " the next morning.

"I have a fun time stirring the pot," Knepper said in an interview Monday. "I don't mind being hated for my views."

But those views upset many students.

"Are we in the 1940s or something? Are there still people who think that date rape does not exist?" asked Geoff Ramsey, 21, a graduate student who helped pass out fliers denouncing the column Tuesday.

Sarah Brown, student director of the university's Women's Initiative, wrote in a letter to the editor that it was "irresponsible and shameful" for the Eagle to publish the column.

"As students and as human beings, we have the right to attend a party without being sexually assaulted," she wrote. "We are the only ones who can decide with whom and when we will have sex."

Calantone said she and other editors decided to publish the column because it raised relevant questions and would foster an important discussion. At the time, she said, she worried that not publishing or heavily editing the column would censor Knepper's views.

"By publishing this piece, we were not trying to display our tacit support of Knepper's views," Calantone wrote in a letter to readers that was posted online Monday. "However, as journalists, we are not in the business of censorship."

A misunderstanding of censorship can arise on college campuses when inexperienced editors are unsure what to do when faced with controversial views, said Christopher Hanson, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland.

"The obligation of news organizations is to balance debate with having certain standards of what they believe is acceptable speech," he said. "The editor should not consider herself powerless to come in and kill a column if that column falls below certain standards."

Within hours after the column was posted online late Sunday, a group of American University students began to organize a protest. The column has received more than 200 comments online, and the newspaper has received dozens of letters and e-mails to the editor.

Early Monday, hundreds of copies of the Eagle were dumped in front of the student newspaper's office, under a sign that read: "No room for rape apologists." Similar signs were placed on many of the paper's distribution boxes across campus.

On Tuesday, a group of students composed a list of demands for the newspaper: Publish an apology, fire Knepper, produce an ethics statement and publish the university's sexual assault policy.

Calantone said Knepper will be required to follow a stricter set of guidelines to ensure that his arguments are coherent and reasonable. Knepper has decided not to reapply for his columnist's position after the current semester.

The Eagle's editors also are organizing a Thursday night forum so students can ask questions and share their opinions.

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