Updated, 1:51 p.m., 12/9/11: One of the YU Beacon’s editors, Toviah Moldwin has now resigned over this matter.
The YU Beacon, an all-online newspaper published by the students of Yeshiva University, has attracted non-stop controversy since its inception about a year ago. The Beacon was founded by Simi Lampert, Ilana Hostyk and Tali Adler – a trio of students at YU’s Stern College for Women who had run out of patience with the status quo at an existing YU newspaper.
A few months into its existence, the Beacon became an official YU publication. “People had a lot of doubts that we could go on without being censored,” Lampert told New Voices over the phone today. But the staff quickly agreed that if YU ever tried to censor the Beacon, “we would pull out from being funded by YU.”
Their resolve on that point was tested this week. An anonymous piece was published in the Beacon, written from the point of view of a female YU student. It told the story of the narrator’s sexual encounter with her male lover in a hotel room. Thousands of hits and hundreds of comments later, they were asked to remove the article.
The situation came to a head last night when Lampert and Toviah Moldwin, the current co-editors-in-chief of the Beacon, met with administrators and student leaders. Lampert and Moldwin decided it was time for YU and Beacon to part ways.
Lampert and Hostyk started to get frustrated late in the fall semester last year. They were upset that their editors at the YU Observer, a student paper that covers Stern in particular, were refusing to run some controversial articles.
“It was being self-censored by the editor in chief,” Lampert, who also blogs for New Voices, told me over the phone today. One of the rejected articles, written by Lampert, was about the drinking culture at Stern, which is officially a dry campus. Another was critical of sex ed. at Jewish high schools. The third was a pro-Palestinian editorial.
Lampert, who looks at the world with a pair wide blue eyes under a head of curly, bright red hair, has a fierce personality and propensity for sarcasm and dry wit. To her, the situation at the Observer was intolerable.
So Lampert and Hostyk decided to do it on their own terms. In January, they began publishing their own newspaper, the all-online YU Beacon.
“Me and Ilana Hostyk were on a sidewalk in front of one of the dorms and I said we should do it,” Lampert said. “She thought it was a great idea.”
Hostyk soon brought in Adler. The three of them pooled their own money, put together the beginnings of a staff and began publishing at the beginning of last semester.
A few months in, they sought official recognition from the Stern Student Council. Granted that recognition, and with it, a budget of up to $500 per semester, they got down to business.
But there was a caveat of sorts: “The administration had asked us when we first started getting funding last year that we let them know if we were putting up an article that might cause controversy,” Lampert said. In a meeting at the beginning of this semester, she said, that point was reiterated.
This Monday, the Beacon published the that piece caused this week’s uproar. Entitled “How Do I Even Begin To Explain This,” it appeared in the Beacon’s “Written Word” section.
A disclaimer that was added to the article later that day said, “We would like to remind our readers that ‘The Written Word’ is a section designated for student literary expression with both fictional and nonfictional content; literary works occasionally contain material that can be perceived as offensive by some readers, so reader discretion is advised.”
Within two days, it had been viewed 15,000 unique visitors and attracted hundred of comments on the Beacon website’s integrated Facebook comments system. (YU only has 3,000 full time undergraduate students.)
In one comment, Lampert wrote, “We won’t be allowing crude comments on our articles. Please keep them respectful.” Responding to her comment, Alexander DeLarge wrote, “Don’t publish articles like this smut and you probably won’t get crude comments.” (DeLarge’s comment has 16 likes on Facebook.)
Other comments were more supportive. Mia Gu commented, “I don’t understand why people are so upset. I can find much more graphic sexual activity in the tanach and that may I remind you was written by God.” (Her comment has 19 likes.)
Around 5 p.m. on Monday, YU Dean of Students Victor Schwartz emailed co-editors-in-chief Lampert and Moldwin. “There was an email from Victor Schwartz that asked that the article be taken down,” Lampert said.
Though Schwartz asked that the email itself not be shared with the press, Lampert summarized the email for New Voices. “He was getting calls from the rabbis in the administration,” she said, while adding, “He did cite that he was afraid we’d lose support from the Student Council.”
YU was making neither Schwartz nor any other YU administrator available to New Voices for comment, except for Mayer Fertig, YU’s director of media relations. He pointed out that Schwartz also serves as the official advisor to all YU publications, saying, “I read that email as a friendly heads up from their advisor, saying that he fears that this is going to harm the Beacon. He did not demand that the article be taken down.”
When New Voices read Lampert’s description of the email to Fertig, he said, “Could you read that as an ultimatum? I guess you could. But I respectfully suggest that you’d be incorrect.”
Lampert and Moldwin replied to the email, “basically saying our side of why we had posted the article,” Lampert said.
Schwartz responded, Lampert said, by saying that “he had conveyed our concerns to the concerned administrators and that he’d get back to us as soon as they responded.” But, Lampert said, he never got back to them.
That night, Stern Student Council President Dena Shayne sat down with Lampert and Moldwin. “She emphasized that she was speaking on behalf of the student body and that it wasn’t coming from the administration,” Lampert said. “She had received a lot of emails from students upset by the article.
Lampert and Moldwin said they wouldn’t take down the article. “We tried pointing out that we got a lot of comments and emails in support of it as well, but she just said there’s enough people upset about this it doesn’t make a difference,” Lampert said.
Shayne told them that if they didn’t take it down, they’d lose their funding, a decision that could be made at the sole discretion of the Student Council, without administrative oversight.
“And that’s when we requested a meeting with the deans,” Lampert said. “She wanted to cut our funding so we wanted to meet with the deans before that happened because we had already been in touch with Victor Schwartz.”
Shayne said she would call Lampert and Moldwin later to arrange the meeting. When Shayne called about two hours later “she said they want to have this meeting as soon as possible,” Lampert said.
She also said that during the phone call, Shayne said, “[Senior Director, Office of Student Life] Marc Spear asked that the article be taken down as a sign of good faith” before the meeting.
Asked about that request, Fertig said, “There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about this, so it’s possible that was said, but I don’t know.”
Lampert said that Shayne made it clear that taking the article down wasn’t a precondition. However, Lampert and Moldwin were eager to meet with administrators to sort things out; they agreed to take the article down, but only temporarily, until the meeting with the deans was over.
While the article was offline, it was replaced with a note from Lampert and Moldwin: “This article has been temporarily taken down at the request of the YU administration on behalf of the student body. We at the Beacon will do our utmost to ensure that the Beacon remains censorship-free, to protect students’ freedom of speech and to ensure that their voices are heard.”
At this point, New Voices posted its first story about the situation. Lampert also gave New Voices permission to re-publish the story while it was removed from the Beacon’s website.
At 5 p.m. yesterday, Lampert and Moldwin finally met with Shayne and Schwartz. They were joined by Spear, Assistant Dean of Students Beth Hait and another Student Council member. The meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes, ended when Lampert and Moldwin decided to end the Beacon’s financial relationship with YU.
In an official written statement, YU characterized the school’s approach to official student publications as “hands-off.” The entire incident, according to the statement, was a case of administrators stepping in to mediate a dispute between two student groups: “University administrators played the role of mediator in this matter, seeking an amicable solution to a difference between two groups of students — the student journalists of The Beacon, and the student council of Stern College.”
Lampert agreed that the real conflict was with the Student Council, not with the administration. “The basic gist of it [the meeting] was that we were very adamant that we weren’t gonna take the article down, but for them it wasn’t a matter of why, but that there were just too many upset students to not take it down,” she said. “Victor Schwarts said, ‘I’m just here to listen, not to talk and this is about what Dena Shayne has to say,’” Lampert added.
“They tried very hard to compromise,” she said. “They tried hard to keep us as a club and as a paper. It was clear that they weren’t happy with the situation.” Shayne, Lampert said, “was the most upset by all this.”
Finally, after a long and frustrating meeting, Lampert and Moldwin stepped out to make their decision.
“We went back in and said we don’t feel comfortable with the idea of changing things,” she said. So the Beacon and YU parted ways and the offending article was put back online.
Lampert said that it all ended on good terms. “No one is upset. This is how it has to be for everyone to be happy,” she said.
Keeping the Beacon online for the year only takes $150. Inspired by this incident, several people, some with no ties to YU, have reached out to the Beacon with offers of donations.
When New Voices last spoke with Lampert, she was busy fielding calls about the Beacon’s story from all corners of the Jewish press, as well as the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.
David A.M. Wilensky is the editor New Voices Magazine.
Correction: This article initially stated that the YU Beacon’s article received 5,000 hits. It received 15,000 unique visitors.