Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Breast-feeding, news judgment under scrutiny after national attention

An AU professor’s breast-feeding during class and a subsequent student newspaper investigation has launched a firestorm of on- and off-campus debate, culminating Tuesday in a student protest at Ward Circle.

Chanting “Give it a rest, it’s just a breast” and holding signs reading “This is not news” and “Feeding your child is normal,” the students said The Eagle was wrong to look into Professor Adrienne Pine breast-feeding her child in class on Aug. 28.

About 15 students gathered at Ward Circle Sept. 11 at approximately 10:30 p.m. in support of Pine and against The Eagle’s potential coverage of her breast-feeding, according to protester Tea Sefer, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and School of International Studies.

The protest followed days of controversy after Pine, an assistant professor of anthropology in CAS, breast-fed her sick child on the first day of her “Sex, Gender and Culture” course, after which The Eagle began an investigation. This is the first story the newspaper has published on the event.

Through subsequent emails and interviews with newspaper staff, Pine said she believed her breast-feeding was not newsworthy and grew worried that publication would spread her name online in a negative light.

When Editor-in-Chief Zach Cohen said in an email that the paper planned to run a story, Pine chose to address the issue herself first. In an online essay, she wrote, “[I] decided the only option left was to exposé my breasts – on my own terms – on the internet.”

On Sept. 5, Pine published an article in the online newsletter CounterPunch entitled “The Dialectics of Breastfeeding on Campus: Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet,” in which she criticized The Eagle’s actions.

“I was shocked and annoyed that this would be considered newsworthy, and at the anti-woman implications inherent in the email’s tone,” Pine wrote of exchanges with Eagle staff writer Heather Mongilio. “Heather continued hounding me … I, unfortunately, was in professor mode, too polite to tell her to go to hell.”

Pine continued, writing that The Eagle is “a sexist third-rate university newspaper” that “has long had a solidly anti-woman slant” and “would craft a poorly-written story … and would shape my online reputation for all eternity.”

The essay also published both Mongilio and Cohen’s cellphone numbers, which were removed upon the University’s request a day later.

News organizations like The Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed and local television affiliates then picked up on the controversy, prompting a larger conversation and the protest on AU’s campus.

AU does not have a policy that specifically addresses breast-feeding on campus but follows D.C. and federal laws, University spokeswoman Camille Lepre said in a statement. D.C. law states that a woman has the “right to breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, where she has the right to be with her child.”

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, AU is required to give “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for up to 1 year after the child’s birth” and “provide a place shielded from view and from intrusion by coworkers and the public, other than a restroom, where mothers can express milk.”

The University also gives faculty the option of taking leave to care for their sick child, Lepre said.

Pine wrote online that because she could not leave her daughter at day care due to her fever, could not get a baby sitter and did not want to cancel class, she felt her only option was to bring her baby to campus.

The baby grew cranky and hungry during class, prompting the professor to undo two buttons of her shirt and breast-feed her daughter, said School of Public Affairs sophomore Paul Grobman, a student in Pine’s course who was present at the time.

Grobman, who attended the protest, said Pine continued her lecture while no students spoke and the class was not disrupted. The feeding lasted “45 seconds at most” and did not make him feel uncomfortable, he said.

CAS sophomore Jake Carias, a student who was also present during the class, said it was not the breast-feeding itself that bothered him, but that Pine had said during class it would be “unprofessional.”

“Breast-feeding doesn’t faze me,” Carias said. “I have no problems with breast-feeding. It was just to me, the fact that she recognized that it was unprofessional, you know, didn’t even think twice to kind of abuse her power as leader of the classroom.”

“If I thought breast-feeding in class was appalling, her response was even more appalling,” Carias said.

A statement released by the University said AU does not agree with the characterization of students in Pine’s essay.

“The views expressed in the blog were those of the faculty member,” the statement said. “Freedom of expression comes with responsibility, and expressions in fora outside of AU have the potential to affect the educational relationship between faculty and students and effectiveness in the classroom.”

The University declined to comment on individual personnel matters or if Pine had violated guidelines in the Faculty Manual, which says that “the university will take appropriate action for [faculty] ‘misconduct,’” including bullying, discrimination and sexual or discriminatory harassment.

It also states that faculty “should at all times be accurate, should respect the right of others to express their opinions, and should make every effort to indicate when they are not speaking for the institution.”

Cohen said he stands by his paper’s conduct.

“Heather acted with the utmost professionalism, and I am proud to call her a member of my staff,” Cohen said.

Pine emailed individual apologies Wednesday night to the reporter and editors involved for publishing their names and contact information online, as well as the tone of her essay.

Never miss a story.

Get our weekly newsletter in your inbox.