The UPEI Student Union found itself in a controversy after a UPEI Confessions post accused UPEISU President Hammad Ahmed of taking credit for the work of others, particularly regarding the sexual assault policy currently under development by UPEI.
The accusation appeared to be related to Ahmed’s comments in an article published in October by The Surveyor, Holland College’s student newspaper, which had inferred it was Ahmed who had spearheaded efforts to develop the sexual assault policy. Ahmed said the article contained misinformation and demanded the article be removed.
The SU then gave the author of the article four days to make the changes the SU wanted or else it would contact the Holland College journalism program, in which the author was enrolled. In the same correspondence, the SU said that they would refuse all future interviews to Holland College journalism students citing previous negative experiences. The Student Union has since walked back on some of its initial decisions.
The student journalist believes he is not at fault and says the SU’s actions have him concerned for his career.
It all started with a simple interview.
Ethan Paquet, a second-year journalism student at Holland College, happened to be on the UPEI campus when he came across a table set up for Consent Week, a campaign organized by the UPEISU in early September. Sitting at the table was Holly Coombs, the SU’s clubs and campaigns coordinator. After asking her a few questions about the table and why it was set up, Paquet was redirected by Coombs to Hammad Ahmed, the SU President.
After asking his questions to Ahmed and having taken down notes, Paquet packed up and left campus. He used the answers to write an article for his journalism program, which was posted to The Surveyor’s website on October 17th.
The article went largely unnoticed until November 29th when an image appeared on UPEI Confessions, a popular campus Instagram account where students can submit anonymous comments to be posted by the account.
“I wish our student union president did not take credit for everyone else’s ideas, like really? You came up with the sexual assault policy? Right? #mansplaining” read the image.
Shortly after the image appeared on Instagram, Ahmed emailed Paquet.
“I Hope This Article Gets Removed As Soon As Possible”
In the email to Paquet, obtained by The Cadre, Ahmed requested that the article be removed for two reasons. The first was that it contained information that was “not true,” solely specifying the section which implied that he had begun writing a policy with Coombs after he was dissatisfied with the one in effect at the time. The second reason was that the SU did not want “to misinform anyone about anything they are doing.”
The email concluded with Ahmed saying “I hope this article gets removed as soon as possible.”
In response to that email, Paquet told Ahmed that the statements in his article matched the notes from his interview with Ahmed, and suggested that the story could be updated instead of removed from the website, given public interest in the topic of consent. He explained that an update could occur if he was provided with a clarification of the facts by the SU, but if that was not possible, he offered to remove the article from The Surveyor’s website.
In a written communication to The Cadre, Paquet said he was uncertain as to why he had been contacted by the SU about the article so late after it had been published.
“The story was written at the beginning of the school year, so 3 months later [Ahmed] messages me about the issue,” he said. “I’ve even reached out to him and the UPEISU for comments on other stories I’ve worked on throughout the school year, so I don’t understand how the matter is only being brought up now.”
Paquet then received an email on November 30th from Fallon Mawhinney, the SU’s Director of Communications. This email, also obtained by The Cadre, provided a list of points in the article that Mawhinney said should be corrected, among them framing issues and alleged factual errors.
In the conclusion of the email, the SU threatened to contact the Holland College journalism department if Paquet did not make the changes the SU wanted to see within four days.
The SU also indicated that they would no longer be accepting interview requests from Holland College journalism students “because of the negative repercussions we have faced as a result of the false information in [Paquet’s] article.”
Author Contests Fault for False Information
Paquet rejects the premise that any false information was his fault; instead, he believes it was Ahmed who was responsible.
“If what the UPEISU says is true, which is that Ahmed did not look at the [sexual assault policy], despite what he told me, he definitely should have redirected me to the right person,” said Paquet.
“I’m not calling him a liar, but he told me exactly as you can read in the story, which was that he had an issue with the [policy] and helped write the new one along with Coombs, so I just reported what he told me.”
Situation Addressed at Council
Ahmed addressed the situation in the SU’s Council meeting on December 3rd and included a lengthy statement from Mawhinney on the issue in his written report. The report said “the article had blatantly incorrect information about the UPEISU” and called the situation “disheartening” and “very tough.”
The report stated that the President had requested the removal of the article for its misinformation, and “although the reporter did not concede to taking down the article, he agreed to make any corrections need.” (Paquet had offered to remove the article if the SU did not agree to have it updated.)
The report goes on to state that because of the situation and two prior negative incidents with Holland College student reporters, the suggestion was made to decline future interviews with Holland College journalism students. (In her interview with The Cadre, Mawhinney said the negative experiences involved a Holland College student requesting to take photos at a wet-dry event and an interview request from Paquet on an initiative against white supremacy at UPEI wherein Mawhinney felt Paquet was “trying to make a story where there was none.”)
This suggestion to refuse future interviews was forwarded to Ahmed and Taya Nabuurs, the SU’s Vice President Academic & External, who approved the suggestion and the proposed corrections for the article.
The decision was later reversed when Nabuurs realized she had signed off on the suggestion to decline interviews from Holland College student journalists. She then reached out to Mawhinney proposing to have the decision reversed. (In her interview with The Cadre, Mawhinney declined to elaborate on the specific rationale given in favor of reversing the decision.)
Student Union Issues Public Response
On the following day, December 4th, the Student Union issued a public response which linked to the article and said it contained misinformation.
The release criticized the cutline that read “Hammad Ahmed and Holly Coombs hand out information about how students can protect themselves from sexual assault at UPEI,” saying that it appeared to place responsibility “on the victims to protect themselves from sexual assault.”
Paquet said that’s just what Ahmed told him.
“That cutline came from when I asked what the pamphlets were for,” Paquet claimed. “Ahmed literally said, ‘It’s information that will help students be less susceptible to sexual assaults.’ I even quoted that in my original cutline, but [my editor] changed it to make it sound simpler.”
Regarding Paquet’s allegation, Mawhinney said the SU had no comment and suggested there might have been a misunderstanding.
“I know there are notes of course but I know it was also kind of an on-the-fly interview,” she said.
“I know there was probably lots of writing very fast and it was a busy spot… there could have been misunderstandings,” she added.
The December 4th release also stated that, while they were related in theme, the creation of a standalone sexual assault policy and the Consent Week campaign were separate events.
This differs from the SU’s second email to Paquet, in which the SU claimed that Paquet’s depiction of the sexual assault policy and the Consent Week campaign being “closely linked” was incorrect, prompting a requested amendment from the SU.
However, when Vice President Student Life Megan Rix was asked to explain how campaigns were determined during a November 13th interview with The Cadre, Rix said, “really, with the whole new sexual assault policy, we really wanted to do something on consent.”
The December 4th release additionally said that the decision to suspend interviews with Holland College journalism students was the result of negative repercussions from this article in addition to previous negative experiences with Holland College journalism student interviews.
In the SU’s second correspondence with Paquet, the rationale for declining future interviews was solely attributed to misinformation in Paquet’s article.
When asked about the discrepancy between the private communications with Paquet and the public communications issued by the SU, Mawhinney said that she was displeased with the repercussions from the October article and that it was not until the situation was discussed internally that other issues with Holland College journalism students had become apparent.
The release also quotes Ahmed speaking to the misinformation, saying that the article “should clearly give credit to those responsible for working hard to achieve [the creation of a standalone sexual assault policy] for our school.”
Paquet claims that Taya Nabuurs, the lead on the SU’s sexual violence prevention efforts, was not referenced during his interview with Ahmed. He said that if she had been mentioned, he “would have asked to speak to her. It’s what I’ve been trained to do.”
In an interview with The Cadre, Ahmed said he only recalled his answer to the question on the number of sexual assaults.
“Along the lines of [the answer about the number of sexual assaults], there is something similar printed in there,” said Ahmed. “Other than that, I don’t recall talking to him about anything.”
“It… Could Really Ruin My Reputation as a Reporter”
Paquet is concerned about the effect the story could have on his career.
“The only thing I was and still am worried about is being labelled as a bad journalist due to a mistake that wasn’t on my part,” he said.
“I have worked hard on my stories for the past year and a half to ensure they are accurate, so if one gets called out, it leaves a lingering uncertainty about the other stories and could really ruin my reputation as a reporter.”
When asked about Paquet’s fears, Mawhinney expressed disappointment.
“I’m really sorry he feels that way,” she said. “That’s a crappy feeling.”
Mawhinney reemphasized that the decision to refuse interviews had been reversed and that they did not intend to harm Paquet’s reputation, stating her belief that the situation was largely just a misunderstanding.
“I don’t mean to target someone,” she added. “That’s certainly not what we’re about.”
Canadian University Press President Weighs In
Cameron Raynor, the President of the Canadian University Press, a nonprofit cooperative and newswire service owned by student newspapers, says situations like this are not uncommon in Canada.
“We hear about student unions pressuring or facing off with student publications a few times each year,” he said. “The relationships between papers and SUs vary quite a bit and depend a lot on the personalities involved.”
Raynor said it is “disheartening” to see student unions attempting to avoid student media.
“Student unions set out to represent students and student journalists are key to providing coverage of student union activities to the students that these unions represent,” he said. “At the end of the day, student press is press, and this isn’t any different than refusing to speak to reporters in general.”
When asked about his thoughts on situations like Paquet’s, in which student journalists allege they are being targeted for publishing erroneous information provided to them by a student union official, Raynor was blunt.
“If someone says something on the record, it’s on the record. The reporter shouldn’t be targeted for doing their job well.”
By: Nathan Hood
Photo: William Chandler Architects and Schurman Construction