When LaSalle University administrators ordered the school's newspaper to downplay a story about a professor hiring strippers for an ethics seminar for students, the incensed young journalists responded by leaving bare the top front of the paper, save for a tiny line of print: "See below the fold." The entire bottom front of the paper was devoted to the scandal.
The blank space was a creative end-run by the staff of the Collegian around the administrators' order to not print the story on the top front of the paper.
The story, by Collegian editors Luke Harold and Justin Walters, detailed the events surrounding the alleged hiring of strippers by Assistant Professor of Management Jack Rappaport to perform at the seminar, held March 21 at the private, Catholic university's graduate campus in Plymouth Meeting.
But although Collegian staffers had been ready to run with the story in the April 7 edition, it didn't hit print until April 14 six days after it was published by a Philadelphia paper.
"Imagine having to stand by and watch as several major news organizations run a story that you had written long before, but were prevented from printing. In addition, that story is one of the biggest of the school year. That's what happened to Vinny (Vella) and his staff when the university censored them. They acted admirably under very difficult circumstances," LaSalle journalism professor John Kennedy said.
Administrators' attempted blocking of the story angered Collegian editor-in-chief Vinny Vella, a junior majoring in communications and a former TIMES NEWS intern. He had been tipped to the story by a business student who had attended the seminar.
The Collegian could have broken the story, which went national after it was published on April 8 in the Philadelphia-based CityPaper, he said.
"We knew about Rappaport's seminar almost immediately after it happened. And while I can't say for certain that we had the story first, I can say with confidence that we had a full story prepared almost a week before Emily Apisa ran her story, the first on the seminar, in CityPaper," he said.
"To put it frankly, I was furious. It seemed to me that La Salle was trying to cover this up, even though the story had been broken by national news sources. I also think the timing of our issue – right before one of the university's biggest open houses had something to do with La Salle's trepidation," Vella said.
"Luke Harold and I met with the dean of students personally and debated back and forth as to why the story needed to run on April 14. I was relieved when we were given permission later that afternoon, but any excitement I had was later dashed when the below the fold mandate was given. I see our act of civil disobedience as a victory for student journalists everywhere."
Leaving the top front bare was suggested by a university professor, but Vella isn't saying who.
Vella and his staff gave the suggestion serious consideration before deciding it was the right thing to do.
"We discussed it as a staff, making sure that we were doing this for the right reasons. When it was decided that it was the only way to ensure that the story wasn't obscured in support of La Salle's obsession with positive (public relations), I greenlit it," he said. "It was not my intention to explicitly malign or spite anyone in the La Salle's administration; we did this because we felt that La Salle's student population had a right to read this story."
Efforts to reach Jon Caroulis, director of media relations for LaSalle, were unsuccessful.
The Collegian's unique resolution to the administration's order to downplay the story exploded in the national news, making The Associated Press, CBS News, the Dartmouth Review, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Village Voice blog and numerous other news sites and publications. Vella, who recently finished an internship at the Philadelphia Inquirer, said that "several editors from across the country have emailed me, congratulating the Collegian on the stand we took against censorship."
Have there been any repercussions from the university?
Vella, a Kresgeville resident and a Marian High School graduate, said "So far no, and I don't anticipate anything. We do have two eyewitnesses, however, who say they saw the dean of students personally confiscate a stack of Collegians from one of our newsstands."
As for Rappaport, Vella believes the assistant professor was "misguided."
"I'm all for supplementing education with real-world applications, but this man wasn't thinking clearly," he said. "I have no sympathy for him; he brought this all on himself."