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/ October 8, 2009
The First Rule of WSN? You Don’t Talk About WSN

1Official NYU journalism tiff instigator and (former) WSN Senior Staff Writer Sergio Hernandez was officially fired from the paper yesterday after his treasonous attempts at stimulating a discussion about the relationship between NYU Local and WSN Quiet city download. Though there is no gag rule explicitly outlined in the 1,000-page Official WSN Rule Book (with index and glossary), it’s a widely known fact that no staff members are allowed to publicly voice criticisms of the paper. As for our tired Fight Club reference? It was too applicable to ignore.

“You see, WSN staff members are forbidden from publicly criticizing the paper,” writes Hernandez. “As I’d said, this policy isn’t actually on the books anywhere, but it’s pretty commonly understood.” In a post explaining his talk with higher-ups at the school paper, Sergio writes:

New writers who are unaware of [the policy] often get away with just a slap on the wrist, but I was fully aware of this “rule” and, knowingly, ignored it… Anyway, yesterday I received an e-mail from WSN’s Editor-in-Chief, Rachel Smith, requesting a meeting with me to discuss the content of my posts. Today, she and I met to discuss my “motivation” for writing such a “negative” — but, more importantly, public — critique of WSN. And, because I was still considered an “active” staff member, violating WSN’s “don’t talk about WSN” rule meant I could no longer report or write on behalf of the newspaper.

Of course, WSN isn’t the only paper interested in monitoring the actions of its contributors for the sake of its reputation. But the irony of this incident is that it comes on the heels of a WSN editorial, published yesterday, defending the right for a free student press, and on a larger scale, the right to free speech. I guess WSN wants rights for the paper as a whole, but not for its individual staff members. A choice quote emphasizes the hypocrisy of the whole matter: “An attack on free speech anywhere is an attack on free speech everywhere,” they write.

I suppose we should consider Sergio’s firing an attack on free speech everywhere, then.

In order to grant agency to both sides in this debate, I wanted to hear Rachel Smith and MaryJane Weedman’s side of the story. I e-mailed them, asking if they could confirm the veracity of Hernandez’s post. Their statement reads:

WSN will no longer be accepting writing or reporting from Sergio Hernandez. This decision was not made because WSN has any established “gag rule” for staff, but because of the very negative, public nature of his criticism. We encourage criticism of the paper from our staff; every Sunday we have critique meetings where we rip the paper apart. We realize that we have lots of room for improvement — we’re a student newspaper, after all — and we welcome constructive criticism. But Sergio’s posts were not constructive, nor were they addressed with any member of staff before he posted them. Before Oct. 3, Sergio had not contacted either of us about any of the issues about which he wrote. His blog posts aimed to be damaging to the paper. And though Sergio believes he was not an active staff member when he wrote them, we absolutely disagree.

Any member of staff who took the same active actions against the paper by writing publicly and negatively about it would be fired as well. We stand by our decision.

— Rachel Holliday Smith, editor-in-chief, and MaryJane Weedman, managing editor, Washington Square News

Assuming non-WSN staff members aren’t allowed to attend Sunday meetings, it’s clear here that criticism is acceptable–just don’t be too loud about it. Sergio responded to the statement via e-mail: “On the one hand, she says WSN welcomes criticism and does not impose a ‘gag rule’ on its staff,” he wrote. “On the other, I was fired because my remarks were public and too critical.”

Rachel Holliday Smith and Sergio Hernandez are, for the record, no longer Facebook friends.

Photo by Dean Stattman