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A Threat to Freedom

A Threat to Freedom
February 23, 2006

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal in Hosty v. Carter lets stand a disastrous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that threatens the autonomy of campus newspapers. And although the decision directly applies only to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, it will be used by public colleges across the country to censor student expression.

The Hosty case dealt with the administration’s prior restraint of a student newspaper at Governors State University, whose officials had been criticized by the publication. But the ruling will have an enormous impact on college students’ rights. The ruling marks the first major backward step in legal protections of the rights of college students, and it may be the start of an ominous trend. If student-funded newspapers can be censored, then so can student-funded speakers. In loco parentis, the legal concept giving administrators the power to regulate college students as a parent controls immature children, is making a comeback for the first time, decades after it was killed in the 1960s.

The fact that the dismissal of the Hosty case coincides with the current controversy over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad should make us worry about how the new power to censor granted to administrators will be used.

The global protests over these drawings have given us the horrifyingly un-ironic term “cartoon death count.” But in America, the key question is whether newspapers should print offensive content, especially when that content itself is in the news. Most American newspapers have refused to reprint the cartoons -- despite their importance in the news, claiming that readers can understand the cartoons without seeing the images.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that most of the campus newspapers that have published the Danish cartoons are at public colleges in the  Seventh Circuit, including The Daily Illini (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), The Indy (Illinois State University), The Northern Star (Northern Illinois University), The Communicator (Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne), and The Badger Herald (University of Wisconsin at Madison). The Hosty case has raised the awareness of student journalists at these campuses, and perhaps made them more sensitive to issues of freedom of the press that are central to this debate.

Sensitivity is the question at stake with regard to the Danish cartoons. Should we be sensitive to the feelings of Muslims who have a sincere religious opposition to visual depictions of Muhammad? Or should we be sensitive to news values that dictate that our first instinct should never be to conceal something from our readers?

As the author of an article that included the controversial Danish cartoons in The Indy, an alternative newspaper at Illinois State University, obviously I have taken a stand on this question. It’s unfortunate that Muslims are offended by these images. But once anyone’s sense of being offended becomes the standard for determining publication, we will have lost much of the liberty essential for a free press.

The principle of freedom of the press holds that these decisions should be made by individual newspapers without government intimidation. But the Hosty ruling now gives administrators the power to impose bans on cartoons such as this, and we can only imagine how many college newspapers will face censorship -- and how many student editors will think twice about printing a controversial story or cartoon.

Of course, the fact that it is legal to print cartoons doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good idea. However, the attempts to suppress these cartoons by violence and censorship have made this a question of free expression. It is important for journalists to publish these cartoons no matter how offensive they are, to make the point that journalists should not be intimidated. Newspapers have a duty to print offensive images when they are newsworthy, whether these images are offensive cartoons, or Abu Ghraib torture photos, or the bloody victims of suicide bombers. Sensitivity is reflected in how we react to the racism directed at Muslims, not in our willingness to censor news in order to appease religious traditions.

At a time when media consolidation makes the mainstream media more and more reluctant to offend anyone who might threaten the bottom line, student journalists are the ones who can stand in defense of true freedom of the press. The fact that more student editors than professional ones have dared to print the cartoons should be a matter of quiet disgrace -- not for the students, but for the professionals.

But the Hosty case puts liberty of the campus press at risk. Even if few colleges openly crack down on student newspapers, the threat will always be there. And self-censorship is the greatest danger under a repressive regime. In the wake of the Hazelwood decision by the Supreme Court, which now applies in the Seventh Circuit to colleges, the high school press has been devastated by censorship. Principals across the country routinely censor even the most modest attempts at critical journalism, and many more student journalists simply give up because of the knowledge that they are not free to publish important work.

The response to the cartoon has already brought censorship on campuses. In Canada, Saint Mary’s University philosophy professor Peter March posted the cartoons on his office door, prompting the university to ban them. At Century College in Minnesota, an adjunct instructor who posted the cartoons on a bulletin board was told by a department chair not to replace them after they were ripped down. Other have suffered worse consequences. The Danish editors have faced death threats.

Cartoons have often had a remarkable ability to offend, and the right to print offensive images is fundamental to our constitutional rights. In the 1973 case Papish v. Curators of the University of Missouri, a graduate student was expelled for "indecent conduct or speech" because she handed out a newspaper, The Free Press Underground, that showed a cartoon of a policeman raping the Statue of Liberty. The Supreme Court made the case a cornerstone of student rights and ruled, “the mere dissemination of ideas -- no matter how offensive to good taste -- on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’" Now it can be shut off -- for decency, or any other reason.

Cartoons have frequently caused controversy on campus. In 2001, the University of California at Berkeley’s Daily Californian sparked protests because of a cartoon mocking the 9/11 terrorists by depicting them in hell. In 2002, a syndicated Oliphant cartoon showing Muhammed at a cocktail party sparked outrage when Purdue University’s student newspaper printed it. Other cartoons have caused protests or censorship because they mocked university officials or utilized racial stereotypes. In 2005, the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini suspended a cartoonist, Matt Vroom, because of one of his offensive cartoons was deemed anti-Semitic and got published accidentally.

The Daily Illini has also been the focus of debate over publishing the Danish cartoons. After Muslim groups protested the decision, the publisher suspended the editor-in-chief and the viewpoints editor (ostensibly for violating “process” by failing to consult other editors, although it’s hard to imagine any other topic where anyone would object to the viewpoints editor running a column by the editor-in-chief). The Daily Illini followed this up by enacting a new policy banning discussion of the newspaper on blogs by any students who work for the paper.

This incident is particularly troubling because it foretells what could happen to many more editors who dare to offend. The Daily Illini is an independent corporation unaffiliated with the University of Illinois. In theory, this should mean greater freedom. But independence means that these editors have no First Amendment protections against their overseers, as campus newspapers had until the Hosty case. As a former Daily Illini columnist, I can only view with sadness the idea that freedom of the press is being sacrificed at my alma mater on the false altar of religious tolerance.

College administrators have now been given the legal authority to censor any activities funded with student fees, which could have dramatic consequences. If sensitivity to Muslims (or any other group) becomes the prevailing standard, will right-winger Ann Coulter be banned from campuses? Speaking on Feb. 10 at the Conservative Political Action Conference (where Dick Cheney and Bill Frist were also prominent speakers), Coulter declared: “I think our motto should be, post-9/11, raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences." Although Coulter is an ugly racist, her sickening views need to be countered, not prohibited. However, the first step in condemning Coulter is to repeat her horrible words. If we want to condemn someone, whether a cartoonist or a writer, we must first see the work. And then we must understand that critique, not censorship, is the only way to convince people to comprehend the truth.

The College Media Advisers proclaimed in response to the Supreme Court’s refusal to consider an appeal, “It is now all the more imperative that student publications establish clear operating guidelines as designated public forums, if they already haven’t.” The presidents at Illinois State University, the University of Southern Indiana, and the University of Wisconsin at Platteville have signed declarations protecting freedom of the press on their campuses, but according to the Student Press Law Center, more than 75 public colleges in the seventh circuit have taken no action. Advocates of liberty on college campuses need to convince these campuses to protect their student newspapers, and they also need to persuade state legislators to pass “reverse Hosty” laws to protect the rights of students at campuses like Governors State University that will never voluntarily grant First Amendment rights to their students.

Some critics may see the decision by campus newspapers to reprint these cartoons as a good reason to impose more control by administrators over students. But even those who see publishing the cartoons as a terrible error must understand that the liberty to make mistakes is essential in a free society. It is also essential for students to learn. At campus newspapers across the country, the cartoon controversy has been a tremendous learning experience for student editors, whether they decided to print the cartoons or not. They have learned something about Muslims, and about whether it is wise to offend readers. And, sadly, student editors have learned in the past month that freedom of the press is not so secure as they might wish.

Bio

John K. Wilson is the founder of College Freedom, a Web site about academic freedom issues, and the author of the forthcoming book Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.

 

 

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