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Tempest in a Stew Pot

Posted 5/30/2001

To the Nose's thinking, Baltimore International College (nee the Baltimore Culinary Institute), where students learn to whip up soufflés and care for catering businesses, seems an unlikely setting for a fiery fight over First Amendment rights. But then that's just the sort of stew a group of BIC students recently found themselves in over their four-page monthly newsletter, Toques and Ties. Part of the problem may have been a certain bikini-clad woman and her "hot buns"--but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

After a final edit by Carol Wohlleben, the school's dean of student activities, Toques' debut issue appeared in late March. In early April, all the neophyte student editors either joined or were elected to the downtown school's newly created Student Government Association (SGA). Not long after that, the editors trucked down to the University of Maryland, College Park, to attend a conference on the roles and rights of student publications. "We learned that since BIC is a private school, the only way we could have full control over the newsletter was to make it an independent publication unconnected to the SGA or school administration," says Toques editor Avis Smith, a 42-year-old freshman studying food and beverage management. Newly enlightened, she got busy on the next issue and a front-page story proudly declaring the newsletter's editorial independence--from now on, no BIC money or equipment would be used to produce it.

When Wohlleben got wind of the new approach, she informed the students that they couldn't use the name Toques and Ties anymore. But it was too late. The new issue had already gone to press (more than 130 copies run off at Kinko's). Rather than trash them, the students inserted a page announcing that future issues would be called Toast and Tea. The second issue, which hit the streets May 14, also included a scathing editorial headlined "The 'Bun Lady' Exposed," which savagely denounced a marketing flier the college created to solicit students for the summer semester. The flier featured the headline "Bake Your Buns at BIC" and an illustration of a woman in a skimpy bikini holding a steaming bun on a tray. "Tawdry, despicable, and loathsome," railed the editorial. ("The bun looks like a butt," Smith elaborated to the Nose.)

The sherbet soon hit the fan. Wohlleben distributed letters to the editorial staff that announced that the SGA was being "dismantled." "I am accepting your immediate resignation" from student government, the dean wrote, despite the fact that none of the students had resigned. The "Gang of Five," as they've come to be known around school, refused to accept the missive, saying it should have been sent certified mail. "I also wanted them to send me a copy of my signed resignation letter," Smith says.

As the saying goes, out of the frying pan, into the fire. The next letter from the administration--which did come certified mail--summoned the "Gang" to a May 22 judicial hearing. The school's chief beef was the students' use of the Toques and Ties name; Smith maintains the the real rub was the "Bun Lady" editorial. In any event, the heat was on. Could their free-press exercise lead to expulsion?

The day of reckoning came, and as Smith says, "It turned out very positive." College Provost David Goodwin said a form of student government would be reinstated in the fall, and that students were free to produce an independent newsletter. And the so-called Bun Lady? Goodwin apologized for the offending ad, telling Smith that the campaign was deep-sixed after a little more than 100 fliers had been mailed to prospective students. As for the Gang of Five, they were wrist-slapped with an assignment to write a five-page paper on the topic "positive personnel strategies."

The school still claims rights to the name Toques and Ties. Smith, who's since boned up on copyright law, says she's concluded that BIC's position lacks legal footing, but after all the brouhaha she's not looking to rock the boat again over the issue. The bottom line is, the students withstood the heat and get to stay in the kitchen.

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