“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, cheers; I drink to that. Yeah, yeah…”
No, Rihanna, there wasn’t a party at the bar, but on December 1st, there was one in the Journalism 1 class taught by Adjunct Professor Roberto Soto. Soto brought in a homemade wine to celebrate the birth of his new grandson. Cups, enough for each and every member of the class, which included minors, were placed on the front desk. No one walked out of the classroom, as students were able to help themselves to a drink and pose for class photos and a video, Soto included, which were later uploaded to Facebook by students.
“He didn’t force anybody to drink,” said junior Journalism major Victoria Esteve, who is in the Journalism 1 class. “Half of those people were under age. It was his own wine, too, like soda wine. Technically, he didn’t pour the wine, but he brought it in and enough cups for everybody. His daughter had just had a baby boy. He was overwhelmed with joy, and he wanted wine. He was like, ‘I don’t want to get in trouble for this. I am going to put the wine down, and I will bring the cups out, and you do what you will with that.’ Even though I didn’t learn anything in the class, he was a nice guy. I know he works at other campuses. I hope this doesn’t follow him.”
Students were informed the following week that, after an investigation, Soto was fired, abandoning his classes just days before finals began. After multiple attempts by the Pioneer to contact Soto, he responded, but he would not comment about the incident. There are 32 students in this History of Journalism class, who are depending on getting a good grade in the class.
“We feel really bad for the students,” said Chair of the Media Arts Department Barbara Fowles. “Sandra [Mardenfeld, Director of the Journalism Program] and I are trying to fix it. I can’t talk about the details of the personnel matter, but we are going to meet with the students and work out some kind of resolution, so they can get a fair grade. That’s the main concern for me.”
Mardenfeld has taken over Soto’s Journalism 1 class for the rest of the semester.
“Like any other class I teach, my primary concern is always to give the students a positive educational experience,” said Mardenfeld. “That’s what I intend to do with this course, despite my brief tenure in it.”
The Pioneer has been informed by numerous professors contacted for comment about this incident that a gag order, an order by a court, government, or private institution, restricting information or comments from being made public, has been put in place to prevent them from speaking with the Pioneer about this incident.
The Pioneer contacted the Student Press Law Center about the gag order. “At the college level, a place that is supposed to be all about academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas, it’s pretty damaging to be known as a haven for censorship,” said Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center Frank D. LoMonte in response to the Pioneer’s inquiry. “It makes people wonder, justifiably, what else the school is hiding. Keeping unpleasant information out of the newspaper is something we associate with North Korea or China or Libya. That’s not the company that any institution of higher education should aspire to keep. In the absence of news coverage, people are just going to indulge their imaginations and speculate, and it’s so much better for the integrity of the institution simply to get out in front of the story and deal with it honestly.”
According to Public Safety, the University recognizes that students are adults and expects them to obey the law and campus regulations. Only those of legal drinking age (21 years of age or older), may be permitted to possess or drink alcoholic beverages on campus.
“The University is investigating an incident involving alcohol that occurred in a classroom on December 1st,” said Dr. Paul Forestell, Provost of the C.W. Post Campus, in a statement released on December 7th. “The University has strict policies regarding the use of alcohol on campus and prohibits its distribution to, or use by, minors. While we are unable to discuss personnel issues regarding individual employees, we are committed to ensuring that alcohol policies are strictly enforced, as well as to meeting the educational needs of our students.”
New York Alcoholic Beverage Control Article 5 § 65-C states that it is lawful for minors to possess and taste alcoholic beverages in class when required for instructional purposes (such as a wine tasting class). This course must be licensed or registered by the state education department. A person under the age of 21 years old may also possess any alcoholic beverage with intent to consume if given by that person’s parent or guardian. Furthermore, according to the New York State Liquor Authority, one may be held liable for damage to property if it is damaged by minors who drank after alcohol was administered. That person may also be held responsible if the minor hurts himself after obtaining the alcohol.
“I was worried about my grade, but not anymore,” said a junior Broadcasting major who is in Soto’s Journalism 1 class. She asked the Pioneer not to publish her name because of concern about her final grade. “The bottle wasn’t in the class photo. He wanted a class photo just to have it. Honestly, I wasn’t offended by it, but I didn’t think it was the right thing to do, seeing as he is a grown man knowing the rules of the school. Even if we are all over age, he would have still gotten in trouble. Nobody said anything about it [when it occurred]. Nobody really hesitated to take what he was offering us.”
Following the incident, students discussed what happened on social media networks. Senior Matt Saur tweeted as NYMoot: “True just found out a journalism professor at my college brought in alcohol to class, and he was fired. Wish I was in that class =/”
“I believe that Professor Soto is a good man who just got a little carried away,” said junior Public Relations major Marisa Anziano. “He wanted to celebrate the birth of his first grandson with the class, which is a nice thought. However, he handled it in the wrong way. The whole situation made me uncomfortable, but, at the same time, he never forced anyone to drink the wine. Those who participated acted independently. It is an unfortunate circumstance, but I feel like administration handled it correctly.”