Home Campus Is the city of Athens silencing those speaking about sexual assault?

Is the city of Athens silencing those speaking about sexual assault?

12 min read
A sign depicting advocating sexual assault awareness.

After a tweet gained traction accusing the city of silencing those promoting consent amidst rampant campus rape reports, Athens Code Enforcement is explaining city rules.

Six cases of rape and two cases of sexual imposition have been reported to the Ohio University Police Department and Athens Police Department since fall semester began less than three weeks ago. Some students have spoken out against the perceived increase in sexual violence by promoting consensual sex.

Several Ohio U sororities and fraternities, which are all located off of the university’s campus, hung bed-sheet signs with messages like “Consent is Sexy Mandatory.” That sign in particular was hung by members of the Sigma Kappa sorority house located at 22 N. College St.

But one sorority member’s claim that the city of Athens is purposefully trying to stifle discussion and awareness about sexual assault gained more than 2,000 likes and nearly 750 retweets on Twitter.

The tweet, sent on Saturday, Sept. 8, was the first in a thread of 20 tweets that alleged a man claiming to be an Athens Code Enforcement officer approached the Sigma Kappa house, told residents of the house that the banner was in violation of Athens municipal code, and asked the students to remove it.

Ellie Stephens, who sent the tweets, claimed that the man was unable to specify why the sign was in violation of city rules. Stephens said a supervisor could explain — two days later — on Monday why it was not allowed.

So they want it down because we’re making the city look bad for not doing anything to prevent these violences them selves[sic],” Stephens said on Twitter. “SORRY YOU’RE OFFENDED BUT I’M NOT SORRY THAT I HAVE TO CHECK AND MAKE SURE MY FRIENDS MAKE IT HOME AT NIGHT SAFELY.”

The man, identified by a business card posted by Stephens in the thread as George Nowicki, is employed by the Office of Code Enforcement and Community Development as a “Solid Waste Inspector.”

Rick Sirois, director of the Department of Development Enforcement & Facilities, said Nowicki was enforcing the sign code because only two solid waste inspectors employed by the city work on the weekends; the other four general code inspectors work Monday through Friday.

“I still need coverage,” Sirois said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “So I told them that if they see banners go up like that, to go up to them and ask them to take them down.”

He added that solid waste inspectors are trained in how to deal with the banners the same way the other code enforcement officers are — by asking if the homeowners have a permit. However, the tweets from Stephens suggest that Nowicki was unaware of what exact rules the banner was violating.  

Sirois said the issue is not with the banner’s content, but instead with the presence of a unpermitted banner itself.

“We do not look at the content of the sign, we just look at the fact that it is a sign,” Siros said. “But that’s what people have to understand, we’re not addressing the content, we’re addressing the fact that they have a sign up.”

In the past, Sirois said the office ignored sorority and fraternity rush signs, which Stephens mentioned in her thread. Now, they have decided to apply the rules equally.

Sirois said issues with these bed-sheet signs began long before this weekend; residents on Mill Street regularly hang bed-sheets with vulgar and offensive statements on the outside of their residence during the university’s move-in weekend.

“We’ve always addressed the vulgar signs,” Sirois said. “You have one or two every once and a while, but there was just a proliferation of them. So all of a sudden it’s in our face, and you just can’t turn a blind eye. Since we did Mill Street and we addressed all of the bed-sheets, we better address this so it’s even. Again, it’s not the content.”

Sirois added that residents on many residential streets in Athens are prohibited from hanging banners at all and cannot apply for a permit. These zones — called “R1” — include most of the residential areas in Athens, Sirios said. North College Street, where the banners in question were hung, are zoned “R3,” which allows residents to hang banners if they submit the application for permit, which costs $40.

Two days after her initial tweets, on Sept. 10, Stephens tweeted that there was “great news,” and that she and another Ohio U student had met with Athens Mayor Steve Patterson to discuss the situation.

“Great news! @kristin_kawecki & I spoke with the mayor today about the banner movement happening on campus as well as some ideas that could help make Athens a safer place,” Stephens tweeted. “We had a great conversation and we are hoping to actually see a change. The banners will stay up! #HangitHigh

Patterson, who called his hour-long conversation with the students “very constructive,” said he explained Athens City rules regarding signs.

“The content of the banners was informational in raising awareness of sexual assault and things like ‘no means no…’ which I, as mayor of the city of Athens, am supportive of 110 percent,” Patterson said.

The mayor also said he advised the women to get involved in the legislative process, provided the contact information for all seven members of Athens City Council, and advised them of the Joint Police Advisory Council, which contains both student and city representatives.

He added they discussed other initiatives for making the city safer including increasing the number of blue emergency phones in the city. Patterson said he would reach out to his counterparts in both the Town & Gown Association and the National League of Cities University Communities Council to get ideas about how to help make Athens safer.

“It’s a great asset because we can sit and steal each others good ideas moving forward,” Patterson said.

For now, the bed-sheet signs urging for safe and consensual sexual behavior continue to hang throughout uptown Greek houses amid news of another reported rape to Athens police Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: The New Political reached out to Stephens for comment on this report but has not yet received a response.

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