An Indian American girl’s story on rape, sexual abuse leads to furor over free speech

Tanvi Kumar is a senior at the Fond du Lac High School in Wisconsin.

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: A Wisconsin high school is in the middle of a fight over free speech, stemming from a student article written by senior Tanvi Kumar.

Tanvi Kumar (courtesy of the Fon du Lac Reporter)
Tanvi Kumar (courtesy of the Fon du Lac Reporter)

Kumar attends classes at the Fond du Lac High School, located in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and writes for the school’s student-run newspaper, The Cardinal Columns. Last month, she wrote a controversial piece entitled “The Rape Joke,” which talked about how the word “rape” is so widely misused in today’s society, and how people must learn how truly horrific the word is, and what rape really does to its victims, so that we can curb its usage as much as possible. (The full story can be read here.)

The story details some graphic sexual dialogue, as it tells of a student named Emily and two other students, who were repeatedly abused sexually by several people, including members of their own families in some cases. Various uncomfortable vignettes are weaved throughout the piece as Kumar strives to make her point: rape is bad, it should not be taken lightly, and the victims have a right to be upset when rape and sexual assault is bandied about as if it’s nothing.

The Fond du Lac High School principal, however, thought the piece was too graphic, went too far, and implemented a new rule, FDLSD Board Policy 9.1052, by which the school’s administration would look through the contents of each month’s newspaper before it went to press, and take out any stories or material they find objectionable.

“All school-sponsored publications shall be subject to review by the principal prior to print and publication. The principal may refuse to publish any materials that substantially interfere with the educational process, educational environment, or rights of other students, or materials that may be reasonably perceived to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy. In addition, the principal may refuse to publish any materials that are poorly written, inadequately researched, false, defamatory or libelous, vulgar or profane, unsuitable for immature audiences, or biased or prejudiced. The principal’s decision is subject to final review by the Superintendent,” it said.

Had it been up to principal Jon Wiltzius and school superintended James Sebert, they would not have published “The Rape Joke” at all, saying that both the story’s content and an accompanying photo of a girl, her face blocked out, holding up a sign saying “LOL?” was inappropriate.

Last Monday, March 21, the school’s auditorium was inundated by faculty (particularly English teachers), parents, students, free speech advocates, and even several survivors of rape and sexual assault, as the congregation made a concerted effort to block the new school rule. The English department, on its own, released a 22-page open letter to the school’s administration, decrying the censorship rule and saying it was a step backwards for an otherwise progressive school and school district.

“The attention this controversy has stirred up has confirmed one thing: our students, allowed some freedom to work together to think critically and make informed choices on their own along with the guidance of a highly qualified instructor, are capable of truly amazing things. Such work should be celebrated, not censored,” said the letter, which can be read in full here.

School Board member Eric Everson told local media that the new rule was not a form of censorship, but was merely “adult oversight.” He said that the biggest concern was making sure the content being distributed was age-appropriate, implying that the School Board had no problem with rape awareness, just how graphic and potentially offensive the actual written content may have been.

For her part, Kumar has voiced support for the anti-censorship cause, saying that the fact that so many people have rallied behind the piece proves that there’s no need for the administration to poke its nose into the business of the school newspaper.

“The school board has to realize how many people care about this issue,” Kumar told local newspaper The Green Bay Press Gazette. “The whole school has been truly brought together behind this cause. [The administration and School Board] just can’t ignore it.”

Kumar is also concerned that the new rule could potentially silence talented writers and people who need to have their stories be told.

“It took a lot for these three girls to speak up about something truly awful that happened to them,” she said. “I don’t want them to think that the administration is administering this policy to shame them back into their silence. I want them to know they have a voice no matter what happens with this issue.”

So far, an anti-censorship petition has been started at Change.org. As of today, it has 5,611 signatories, and needs another 1,889 in order to repeal FDLSD Board Policy 9.1052.

“Not only does this policy stop students from writing hard-hitting news stories in the future, but it’s also a loss for those affected by serious issues (such as sexual abuse) that could be deemed ‘unsuitable for immature audiences,'” reads the petition. “The staff of Cardinal Columns did nothing wrong. The matter, of which has a large impact on much of the student body, was reported on professionally, insightfully, and honestly.”

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