Can a Three-Panel Cartoon Really Disrupt a Campus (or Get a President Fired)?

By on September 18, 2007

The president of Central Connecticut State University is in a difficult position. The student newspaper has published a cartoon that has offended him and others and has been called racist and sexist. The problem is that he has stated publicly that the cartoon is protected “by the First Amendment and a broad range of judicial court decisions.” Now he is under fire from communication professor Serafin Mendez-Mendez. WSFB reports not only that Professor Mendez-Mendez has filed a judicial complaint against the Recorder and its staff, but also that “Mendez and his supporters are calling for the president’s resignation and said that they will appeal to the Board of Trustees, Legislature and governor for action.” Their argument is that President John W. Miller did not react quickly enough in light of the Recorder’s publication of “offensive” but constitutionally protected speech.
 
This episode comes on the heels of a report by CCSU’s Journalistic Integrity Task Force, which provided an analysis of the court decisions that Miller is adducing. The Task Force decided clearly that the Recorder enjoyed full First Amendment protection. The Task Force had formed in response to an earlier piece in the Recorder that had been deemed offensive. But the Task Force made clear that the First Amendment protected the students and the paper from punishment.
 
CCSU has been through the protests before, and it seems that President Miller has gotten up to speed on the Constitution and the law. I hope that he will be able to educate others on the campus before it is too late for him.
 
A previously unreported aspect of the story is a cartoon in the previous issue of the Recorder. In that cartoon, cartoonist John Petroski portrays a conversation between “JP” and the “chief” of the Recorder. The “chief” advises JP to “take it easy for the time being … make it friendlier and less offensive … I want you to say to yourself, ‘I work in a nursery, and I mustn’t upset the infant.’” In the final panel, JP apologizes to “Mohammad” and “Hitler,” and Hitler expresses his disappointment that JP is not even allowed to make fun of him and his German-English accent.
 
Both of these cartoons are protected by the First Amendment. I mention the earlier one here because it shows that the Recorder is well aware of the pressures at CCSU to be “friendlier and less offensive.” When those pressures extend from the president’s own hand—when the president’s job could be endangered if he does nothing—students will begin to self-censor out of fear of punishment.
 
FIRE is watching this story very closely and will provide updates as necessary. For now, here is the New York Times article on the matter.

Schools: Central Connecticut State University