Boycotts, Firings, and Twitter Debates: The ASU Campus Speech Wars Rage On

Alexia Isais
Alexia Isais
Multicultural and liberal student groups at Arizona State University say they will boycott the State Press, ASU's student-run newspaper, until editors reverse their decision to fire a popular and controversial opinion writer over her anti-police tweets.

Alexia Isais, a political science major, socialist activist, and self-described Communist and Marxist, was fired on September 17, the same day that another student journalist at ASU's Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Rae'Lee Klein, said she was removed from her position as station manager of the student-run Blaze Radio for a tweet that some claimed was racist, apparently ending a weeks-long battle over her job.

Klein's case has been a cause célèbre for conservatives, while Isais is getting support from liberal and leftist groups at ASU and elsewhere. At the heart of both cases are important issues of race, police brutality, "cancel culture," social media, journalism, and the limits of First Amendment protections.

The student editors at the State Press, who were hired by ASU faculty and have the power to hire and fire employees at will in addition to exercising editorial control, are feeling the heat for their decision about Isais.

Twenty groups including Black Lives Matter Metro, Poder in Action, Young Democrats at ASU, the Woman's Coalition at ASU, socialist groups, and others, have pledged not to read the newspaper's site or communicate with its reporters until Isais is rehired.

"We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, are deeply angered by this decision the editors made," says the groups' September 18 statement and list of demands. "With the broader Black Lives Matter movement in the background, it’s revolting to see publications persecute their own opinion columnists during such a polarizing time.

"Journalism, like many areas of employment, historically oppresses women and people of color; and conversely silences minority groups while favoring a systemic white supremacist structure. In firing Isais, the State Press contributed to this discriminatory behavior."

The Cronkite School has a social media policy that warns students to "refrain from posting information to social networking sites or blogs that could discredit you, the Cronkite School or its professional programs." But Isais and supporters see her firing as oppressing her ability to fight for the rights of people who are Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ, or come from other populations that have suffered from persecution in America.

The boycott has already put pressure on the young leaders and staff of the State Press, who want to cover events or issues that involve the groups. Two additional columnists have resigned in protest.

Adrienne Dunn, State Press executive editor, who runs the newspaper for the Fall 2020 semester with Editor-in-Chief Andrew Howard, and Magazine Editor Jay Perez (who's also currently an intern at New Times), admitted the last few days have been tough. The paper has already decided not to run a story about a public event hosted by one of the coalitions, she said.

"Legally, we would be able to cover that. Out of respect for the organization, we're not going to," Dunn said on Sunday, adding that the editors respect and understand the boycott even while not agreeing with it. The paper has also halted the publication of all opinion articles while the staff evaluates the situation. They're still in contact with Alexia.

But for now, the editors are sticking with their decision, Dunn said. She'll let Isais know she'll be receiving one more paycheck. "After that, she won't be receiving the rest of her stipend. That's conditional on employment."

Blue Alert, Pink Slip

Arizona State University student Alexia Isais has strong opinions on a lot of issues — a good quality for someone who hopes to land a job someday in political opinion writing.

In the dozen-or-so opinion columns she's had published since September 2019 in the State Press, ASU's student-run newspaper, Isais has argued in favor of leftist ideas, pushed against the anti-abortion movement and Israel, and promoted the idea of activism and helping out marginalized communities.

Her more radical side comes out on Twitter, where she's pictured herself below a background shot of a famous painting by Diego Rivera that features Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. For the Fourth of July holiday, she tweeted a photo of a burning flag with the message, "Death to America."

"I randomly say things [on Twitter] that are on my mind," Isais said.

At around noon on Thursday, September 17, a "Blue Alert" from the state Department of Public Safety flashed on cell phones across the metro Phoenix area, giving no detail but the advice to "monitor Radio or TV." The public soon learned that authorities were looking for a vehicle used in a shooting attack on two state troopers in Phoenix. The troopers weren't hurt, and the 17-year-old shooter was arrested.

The motive for the attack is unknown, but it comes after months of civil unrest and protests against police brutality, and days after two deputies were shot in the head in Los Angeles by a suspect who's still at large.

Naturally, Isais took her feelings to Twitter.

"Did anyone else get a blue alert??? apparently thats when law enforcement is in danger ... the serotinin [sic] is kicking in," Isais tweeted after hearing of the Phoenix shooting. As responses began pouring in, she doubled down: "Sorry but police aren't actually human ... they can all go fall into the abyss and society would be better off without them."

Some friends suggested she delete the tweets, which she did. Dunn called her, sounding "distraught." The State Press had never previously warned her about her tweets, she said.

"That's what I thought was completely unfair," Isais said. "In less than an hour, I was fired." (Note: State Press editors dispute this, saying after publication that her first tweet was about 12:30 p.m., and she was fired at 3:05 p.m.)

She thinks maybe "the State Press is tired of me. They were looking for any excuse to get rid of me."

Dunn said Isais knew what the rules were, and that "she knows what is not well-received."

From the perspective of the State Press editors, Isais had crossed a red line. Howard, Dunn, and Perez wrote in a September 18 column that Isais "was fired because those tweets promoted violence or harm toward a person" and that referencing her State Press affiliation on Twitter, combined with the two tweets, "can endanger our staff and newspaper as a whole... Her political views were never the problem."

Ironically, the State Press is being smeared as a discriminatory workplace and boycotted by the same groups the State Press journalists "are making a consistent, active effort to uplift and promote." People of color were involved in the decision to fire Isais, the editors said in refuting allegations that the decision was based on Isais' race.

Similar Situations

As Isais' workplace plight exploded on Twitter last week, comparisons were inevitably made to Klein. Some felt Klein, who is white and didn't get fired as quickly as Isais — whether she got fired at all is still unclear — received favored treatment.

Klein offended Black Lives Matter supporters and disappointed co-workers with her August 29 tweet referring to the sexual assault charge against Jacob Blake, the Wisconsin man shot in the back in front of his children during an arrest.

"Always more to the story, folks," Klein had tweeted, linking a New York Post story about the charge. "Please read this article to get the background of Jacob Blake’s warrant. You’ll be quite disgusted."

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Rae'Lee Klein says she has been removed from her job as station manager at Blaze Radio.
Rae'Lee Klein
Although the radio station and newspaper are run by students, its leaders are hired by a panel of faculty members. Klein's six fellow board members at the station voted to remove her from her job, but she refused to resign. A letter from Cronkite Interim Dean Kristin Gilger stated that remaining in the job is "not an option," for Klein; a board member told New Times that Cronkite informed the board Klein would no longer be station manager; and Klein says she was removed as station manager. Still, ASU officials say they never removed Klein from her job.

Klein "published a tweet defending the attempted murder of Jacob Blake by police," according to the multicultural groups' statement. "Klein remaining in her position while Isais was immediately fired without due process speaks to the underlying hypocrisy of this entire situation."

The State Press editors say that if Klein had been one of their opinion writers, they would have fired her, too, because of her tweet. Some of the groups' members and commenters on Twitter found Klein's tweet more offensive than Isais'. As Isais described the reasoning she and others apply to the situation, it's horribly offensive to offend a traditionally marginalized person or community, but just fine to offend police or even offer up vague threats against them, because they can take off their badges if they want to, and their jobs are inherently violent.

How people view what either Klein or Isais tweeted, or their right to tweet it, often depends on their own beliefs. The difference in political worldviews helps explain why Isais and the people who claim that she had every right to make her anti-cop tweet don't want to give that same leeway to Klein.

"I don't think I can be equated with Rae'Lee," Isais said. "I'm not discriminating against ethnic groups. I'm discriminating against the cops."

A spokesperson for the Woman's Coalition said in response to New Times' questions that although the group doesn't endorse Isais' views, it supports her right to tweet what she wants. Isais reached out to the coalition for support, while Klein never approached the organization, the spokesperson said.

Klein vehemently disputes the idea that she discriminated against any group.

Preparing for the Real World

Cornelius Foxworth, vice president of the Black African Coalition at ASU, which joined the pro-Isais groups and released its own statement, said both Isais and Klein are entitled to their own opinion and should not be fired for things they put on their personal social media accounts. That's not to say people shouldn't be held accountable.

"We always have to be cognizant of what we are putting on social media," he said.

Real-world examples abound of people getting "canceled" from their jobs because of things they tweeted. Corporations and government agencies have a right to manage their reputations by controlling the public statements of employees, forcing Americans to restrain their First Amendment rights in the name of employment. But no matter how many people make headlines for the consequences for their tweets, it just keeps happening. In one recent apparent example, the former spokeswoman for Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Annie DeGraw, was let go shortly after she tweeted that she'd "torture" anyone who got her parents sick with COVID-19.

Young journalism students still learning their craft may want to spray their opinions to the world, but it's hard to anticipate what may happen next.

Jason Manning
"People are being pushed and encouraged sometimes to indulge their worst instincts by our overall political climate," said Jason Manning, an ASU professor and director of student media who serves as faculty adviser to the State Press. "These days, the most extreme statements can find people that will endorse them. For young people, that gets to be really confusing. They may hear a voice of caution, but they're egged on by others.

Manning said he discussed Isais' tweets with the editors, but as always, the students make the ultimate decisions. For both Isais and the editors, "this is definitely a real-world scenario," he said.

In many ways, there isn't much difference anymore between online student publications and media in general, he pointed out. Statements on social media, and decisions made by editors, can have immediate impact inside and outside of the university.

All publications and organizations have their own values and guidelines, and student media is no different, he said. While Americans have First Amendment rights, they still might have an obligation to an organization's rules.

"One of the things we teach our graduating students is to make sure that the organization that you work for, that your values match its values," Manning said.

But that doesn't necessarily mean students should let it rip on Twitter. Unlike 30 years ago, today's controversial comments won't end up "in the dusty archives of the library," he said. "This is an online publication. The words that are published will be there, and will be associated on the record with their name for a long time."