Seattle U Jesuit Deems Photo Offensive, Pulls Copies From Stands


First-year Hunter Adams was one of the Seattle U students who took the stage.

Seattle University hosted its 10th annual Drag Show earlier this month. The event was lauded as a celebration of inclusion and acceptance that provided a safe space and fun environment for students to explore their identities. The cover of the April 11 edition of the Spectator featured a photograph of a Seattle U student performing on stage at the drag show.

Nearly 24 hours after the newspapers were distributed, dozens of copies inexplicably disappeared from stands. Surveillance footage obtained by Public Safety captured an individual lifting entire stacks of newspapers on Thursday evening. On Tuesday afternoon, Public Safety opened an investigation to identify the individual.

On Tuesday night, five days later, the Spectator received an email statement from Fr. David Leigh, S.J., in which he admitted to intentionally removing the copies. The full email reads:

“I was offended by a recent edition of The Spectator, whose cover contained what I considered an inappropriate risqué photograph. A few days after the publication of that edition, I took the liberty of removing the few remaining copies of the paper from newsstands in Bellarmine lobby, the Library, and Pigott. Students and faculty had already picked up most of the copies, but I was concerned about the arrival of new students and their families for Accepted Students Decision Day. I deeply regret this action and have no further comments.”


Last week’s cover photo.

Leigh is an English professor and a notable member of the Seattle U Jesuit community. Last year, he was awarded the McGoldrick Fellowship, which is considered “the most prestigious award conferred upon Seattle University faculty.”

Days before the Spectator received Leigh’s email, Seattle University President Fr. Stephen Sundborg, S.J. reached out to the Spectator to communicate a disdain for the cover photo. In an interview on Tuesday afternoon prior to Leigh’s admission of the removal, Sundborg told the Spectator he was “very, very embarrassed and ashamed” of the cover photo.

“I thought it was indecent,” Sundborg said. “I thought it offended all dignity and respect of sexuality and of persons of bodies. I think it was a mistake on the part of the editorial staff to put that on the cover. I was offended by it… Anybody who would see that who has a sense of propriety would find that offensive.”

Sundborg said he was not alone, and that he encountered other faculty on campus who expressed a similar disdain for the photo, though he would not disclose who.

“I allow the drag show,” Sundborg continued. “Most Jesuit-Catholic universities would not. But then to go and show that pose—indecent pose—from a drag show on the cover is taking it too far. It doesn’t support me in my support of having the drag show on campus, which I allow to have, which I needn’t do, but I do. But then to take it and to push it to the cover of a magazine with an indecent pose from that, expose it out—these are not people then that have chosen to go to a drag show that are seeing that. These are not people who understand what that is. They’ve taken it too far.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Sundborg denied any connection to the removal of the copies. He suggested that they weren’t removed but rather all picked up due to the so-called provocative nature of the cover. He added that he would never consider removing them from the stands as that would be a violation of free speech.

“I tell you, if there’s any violation of the right of the Spectator to have their newspapers out, I would be very, very upset about that and it would be a very significant thing to me because I think that should be protected,” he said.

Caitlin Carlson, a professor in the Communication department who specializes in media law, said that because Seattle U is private, it is not illegal for the university to censor student publications.

“[Private universities] do have, legally, the power to decide either what goes into these flyers, what goes into the newspaper. It really is up to the administration to decide. I think the issue here is that it’s not really in the spirit of I think most other state legislators, folks active in the media,” Carlson said. “Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.”

Chris Paul, chair of the communication department, said he was both “surprised and disappointed” that someone would throw away copies of the Spectator.

“When I saw the cover image, I didn’t understand the consternation. I felt like it was a really beautiful image and a great cover shot,” Paul said.

Paul continued, explaining that the university often supports the Spectator and other student-run media when it is more tame. But, once reporting becomes deeper and more critical, Paul said, the university changes its tune.

“We need to get told the truths that are uncomfortable, too,” Paul said. “That’s how we press forward. Taking a bunch of newspapers doesn’t help us do that.”

Instead of removing newspapers from stands, he suggested a better approach would have been to write an open letter to the Spectator in order to engage in a community-wide dialogue on issues pertaining to gender identity and censorship.

“We should challenge ourselves to dare forth,” Paul said. “If we’re going to ask [students] to be leaders for a just and humane world, they’re going to do things that are just and humane. Shutting down that speech when it is uncomfortable for us doesn’t help us get our students there. We’ve taught them skills to help them push buttons, and sometimes the buttons they push are gonna be ours.”


Anna Kaplan contributed to this report.

Tess can be reached at
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