Exeter Newspaper Faces Administrative Pressure

“The Exonian,” the student-run newspaper of Phillips Exeter Academy, which describes itself as an uncensored paper in its charter, has had password encryption on its site since early September. The Exeter administration effected this change in light of recent sexual misconduct cases at the school. The administration has concerns that students featured in “The Exonian” could attract unwanted attention from large-scale media sources, according to Philip Kuhn PEA’17, Editor in Chief of “The Exonian”.

The website of “The Exonian” can only be accessed after readers enter their email addresses along with the password “FreePress,” which is displayed on the login page. With this policy, the Exeter administration hopes to hold viewers of the site accountable for their use of content on the site, as well as to protect students’ privacy by preventing Internet-keyword searches from accessing articles on the website, according to Brandon Liu, Chief Digital Editor of “The Exonian Online”; it is no longer possible for “The Exonian” articles to appear in Google search results. The decision to put a login page on “The Exonian Online” was a compromise the newspaper reached with administrators after the school asked the paper to put its website on Exeter’s intranet, according to Liu – which would have restricted access to anyone who didn’t have an account registered with the school.

The Exeter administration reached out to “The Exonian” board last January about drafting a clear policy for the management of the paper’s online content in order to protect student privacy, according to Liu. Over the summer, “The Exonian” website was repeatedly shut down without the board members knowing. This event spurred Kuhn and Liu to create the policy for online usage. In general, Kuhn has noticed increased administrative involvement with his paper this year.

“I definitely feel we have gotten more pressure from the administration than we did a year ago. A year ago when I was doing this job, I never even thought about the administration – I never talked with them,” said Kuhn in an interview with The Phillipian.

Liu believes that the recent changes to the paper’s online operations are a response to Exeter’s recent bout of highly-publicized sexual-assault cases.

“I think it does [relate to the sexual-misconduct stories,] in the sense that the school is looking to minimize potential avenues through which personal information can be misused or unfairly presented,” said Liu. “They’re looking to protect students’ and community members’ safety, and I think that’s their No. 1 concern. I think these steps that they’re taking are towards that goal.”

One of the recent cases of sexual misconduct at Exeter, involving two minors, emerged last January. The case resulted in the involuntary leave of the accused male student, while the female student remained on campus. The accused student then filed a lawsuit against the school last August for wrongful expulsion, accusing the administration of a biased investigation, according to a report by the “Union Leader”.

After “The Exonian” reached out to the female student for comment on a story they planned to run on the lawsuit, the administration soon became aware that the newspaper was planning to cover the story, according to Kuhn.

On October 2, members of “The Exonian” board met with Exeter’s Interim Directors of Health and Well-Being, Tina Sciocchetti and Jane Stapleton-Deziel, who were appointed this year to the newly-instated position in light of the sexual-misconduct cases at Exeter. During the meeting, which was called to discuss the administration’s concern for the student’s safety on campus, “The Exonian” was prohibited from covering the story, according to Liu.

“The wording I remember most clearly,” said Liu. “[It] was to the effect of: The administration is in control of all student organizations, of which ‘The Exonian’ is one, and students don’t have the First Amendment right on campus. The problem was that we didn’t have a discussion about what had come about from it. If we had had a conversation beforehand, that would have eliminated any need to shut it down, because we would have understood what was going on.”

“In the end,” Liu said, “it was clear that we had no choice.”

Kuhn is not convinced that the “The Exonian” editors made the right choice when they initially decided to cover the story.

“I’ll admit right now that I regret that decision, I don’t think that was the best journalism there, although I do understand where we were coming from as in really letting [the female student] have her voice, because her voice wasn’t really included in [professional news coverage]… It was very much from the side of the guy,” said Kuhn.

Despite the administration’s prohibition of the sexual-misconduct article and password encryption of “The Exonian Online,” Kuhn still considers the paper to be uncensored.

“The reason why we still call ourselves uncensored is because that is one case, and one very specific case, and none of our articles go by the administration. They don’t know what we are running beforehand; the only reason they knew of this is because word spread around,” said Kuhn.

Over the last few weeks, the newspaper’s login page has been repeatedly edited. The page now states: “ ‘The Exonian’ still seeks to maintain its status as the uncensored, free and open student press, and we are working together with the school administration in these goals.”

When reached for comment, Lisa MacFarlane, Principal of Exeter, referred The Phillipian to Ron Kim, Vice Principal of Exeter. Kim, who was traveling at the time, provided a short statement in an email to The Phillipian.

“We are very supportive of the work of our students at ‘The Exonian.’ At the same time, one of our priorities is the safety and well-being of the students in our care, and thus access to information about our students online has to be considered responsibly, which is why we are working with ‘The Exonian’ web editors to address this concern,” Kim wrote.

“We want to ensure that no one in the community is harmed by something written in the newspaper.  I know these are goals that we all share,” he continued.

Kuhn agrees with Kim’s concerns about student safety.

“I think [it’s] most important to address [this change] with the students, making sure they understand that what is going on the web will stay there, having a policy to show parents, and explaining to both of those parties that we are going to help guide [the] student through it and that we can be trusted,” said Kuhn.

Several incidents of sexual misconduct at Exeter have occurred or been uncovered over the past year. Last spring, “The Boston Globe” published an investigative article on multiple sexual-misconduct cases that occurred at Exeter during the 1970s and 1980s. This revelation resulted in permanent ban from campus of Rick Schubart, a former faculty member who was required to retire in 2011, and the arrest of Arthur Peekel, a former admissions officer, as reported by “The Globe.” Another case, which took place last fall and was covered by “The Globe,” resulted in a male student being charged with the sexual assault of a female student.

The Exeter administration has expressed a great deal of concern over cases that regarded minors, according to Kuhn. “The Exonian” board met with the administration earlier this week to discuss the paper’s approach to future cases, and to map out its relationship with students and faculty going forward.

“[The meeting] went well,” wrote Kuhn in an email to The Phillipian. “The idea of a portal was never brought up and they certainly did not try to pressure us into any further changes or blockages. The meeting was more to clarify how our paper and the administration should navigate their relationship in the future, and I think we came to a good agreement on that.”