All Madison Gesiotto wanted to do when she met with the dean of her law school was report a threat prompted by a newspaper column she wrote pointing out the high abortion rate in the black community.
She assumed the meeting would last 10 minutes. Instead, she said, she was there for about an hour as three deans at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law critiqued her on what they saw as problems with her Oct. 23 column in The Washington Times, “The number one killer of black Americans.”
“This is my freedom of speech, but they kept going on and on about how, ‘This is a flawed article, it’s not a good legal piece, it’s not a good journalistic piece, either,’” Ms. Gesiotto recalled. “They asked me to explain to them why I would put that [line] in, what that means, and how I should have followed that up by saying other things to support these black women.”
A second-year law student who writes the Millennial Mindset column for The Washington Times online opinion pages, Ms. Gesiotto said she tried repeatedly to steer the conversation back to the threat made against her, but that the deans appeared to “blow it off.”
“I’m a very tough person. I very rarely get upset or sensitive about things,” said Ms. Gesiotto. “But I was crying in that meeting for about 30 minutes, I was so shocked. I’ve never been in a situation with people I respected and looked up to and felt so violated.”
Ms. Gesiotto knew that many of her peers at the law school would disagree with the column. She expected to take some flak. What she didn’t expect, she said, was having administrators show less interest in her safety than in tearing apart a column entirely unrelated to her coursework.
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Dean Alan C. Michaels said in a statement to The Times that the university “takes any alleged threat against its students very seriously,” while noting that the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits the university from discussing specific disciplinary or conduct cases.
“The university and the college of law each have procedures for assessing alleged threats and for responding appropriately,” Mr. Michaels said. “These procedures are used for each such allegation received.”
He added, “An inclusive learning environment that provides a forum for a wide range of viewpoints is crucial for a law school. We try to foster a culture of respectful dialogue when addressing tough, emotional topics as they arise in discussions of law and policy.”
Ms. Gesiotto said she heard nothing from the dean after the Oct. 27 meeting even as her article stirred controversy on campus. She did receive a response the next day from Kathy Seward Northern, associate dean for admissions, who assured her that she had investigated the threat by speaking to students from the Black Law Students Association.
“I am satisfied from those discussions that there was not an intent to threaten you with physical harm,” Ms. Northern wrote in an Oct. 28 email.
Even so, Ms. Gesiotto wasn’t reassured because the student who made the threat is white and doesn’t belong to the black students association, she said.
“I never complained about the BLSA,” Ms. Gesiotto said.
Threat over ‘racist article’
The threat arrived on Ms. Gesiotto’s Facebook page as part of a heated back-and-forth shortly after the appearance of her column, which cited figures by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that black women received 36 percent of reported abortions in 2011.
The Facebook message said, “The government cannot take action against you for your offensive and racist article. But your colleagues can.”
Ms. Gesiotto, 23, said she became “extremely nervous” after reading the post, not knowing whether the threat referred to physical harm. The message came from another OSU law school student, but not one she knew.
“What bothered me is that I don’t know who this person is, I don’t know what type of action they were talking about,” said Ms. Gesiotto. “I just wanted the school to make sure it wasn’t anything physically dangerous to me.”
She contacted Mr. Michaels’ office and set up a meeting for later that day. When she arrived, she was surprised to see not one but three deans, including Ms. Northern, and that all three had copies of her article.
Leading the criticism was Ms. Northern, who “asked me about specific lines in my article and what I meant by those lines.”
“[Ms. Northern] explained that she thought this was not proper legal writing or journalistic writing,” Ms. Gesiotto said. “She further explained that in her mind this article could be taken various ways and left questions to be answered.”
As far as Ms. Gesiotto was concerned, however, the content of the article wasn’t the administration’s concern.
“They have no say over what I have in my pieces,” Ms. Gesiotto said. “First of all, it has no bearing on my education. It should have no bearing on anything. It shouldn’t have been discussed in the meeting.”
The deans also urged her to remove from her online biography her position as a staff editor of the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, she said, saying it would confuse those who might think she was a faculty member and not a student.
They recommended that she participate in a “facilitated discussion” with students who disagreed with the op-ed. She refused.
“The main dean said something like, ‘Well, you said you feel unsafe. We’re trying to alleviate the tension, so you can explain to the other kids what you meant by your article,’” said Ms. Gesiotto. “I thought that was completely out of line. It should have never been proposed. I was there to report a threat. And then they tried to flip it around and push me into a facilitated discussion with other kids about my article. It was bizarre and very disappointing.”
Ms. Gesiotto was so worried about the threat that she also reported it to the main campus, where she said a counselor suggested that school officials could talk to the person who made the threat but warned that doing so might escalate the situation.
The episode caused her to miss several days of class, although her professors helped her catch up with missed assignments.
“I put so much time and finances into my education, I’m not going to let these people get the best of me,” said Ms. Gesiotto. “Luckily, nothing physically happened to me. But it could have. They never investigated the threat.”
The article touched off a chain of events on campus. In a Nov. 1 statement published in The Lantern, the student newspaper, the Black Law Students Association said its members took offense “at the racist undertones of the opinion piece and question its journalistic integrity.”
“By making such sweeping and irresponsible statements regarding Black women’s reproductive health, the opinion piece fails to address a myriad of factors that may influence a Black woman’s decision to exercise her reproductive rights,” said the letter.
Shortly thereafter, the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law announced a policy change: Editors who identify themselves as such when writing for other publications must include a disclaimer saying that their views do not necessarily reflect those of the journal.
Mr. Michaels and Ms. Northern issued an Oct. 30 message to students stressing the importance of an “inclusive learning environment.”
“Over the past several days, there has been broad discussion in our community around issues of race, ideology, socio-economic status and other matters that inevitably arise in a diverse community,” the message said. “We understand and appreciate the powerful feelings that many are experiencing and have expressed.”
The online publication .Mic covered the flap in a Nov. 12 article, “Inside the Ohio Law School Controversy Fueling Debate About #BlackLivesMatter and Abortion.”
‘Bullying’ by liberals
Concerned Women for America President and CEO Penny Nance decried what she described as the “bullying” of Ms. Gesiotto, who leads Young CWA, calling it “emblematic of the left’s campaign to squelch the First Amendment rights of conservative students on campuses across America.”
As a former Miss Ohio USA who competed in the 2014 Miss USA pageant, Ms. Gesiotto has more experience handling public scrutiny than most other people her age.
Even so, she said, she feels shaken by some of the rumors she still hears, such as, “I’m going to drop out, I’m getting kicked out of school, teachers are hoping I drop out of school.”
“Just horrible, horrible things that just never feel good no matter how strong a person you are,” she said.
Having said that, she has no regrets about her article or her decision to continue writing the weekly column, which launched in July.
“I’m definitely discouraged by the way that my law school has handled this situation, but I’m not at all going to back down from the things I believe in,” said Ms. Gesiotto.
“These are my beliefs, and this is a wonderful platform on which I can express them,” she said. “My column reaches thousands of millennials across the country every single week. I feel like by standing up for what I believe in I may be inspiring others who have been pushed down to stand up for what they believe in. And never back down.”