Florida university censors magazine for Jay Leno joke

January 25, 2006

FLORIDA — Jay Leno may be a popular late night comedian and talk show host, but school officials at Stetson University do not find his jokes very funny — at least in print.

University officials banned a satirical student publication, Common Sense, from being distributed in October because the magazine quoted a joke Jay Leno made about Mexicans, and for running a picture of a dorm-room window that displayed a rainbow flag with a question mark superimposed over it, said the magazine’s Editor in Chief Frank Ganz.

But in November, the university bowed to public pressure and publicity and allowed the second issue of the magazine to be distributed, Ganz said.

“The original idea was to promote discussion about it, we didn’t even make a statement,” Ganz said.

The Stetson senior started the publication along with three other students and their first issue went to press in October of 2005. They had only distributed 40 of the 500 copies of the paper when Dean of Students Michelle Espinosa notified Ganz that they had broken Stetson policy by failing to go through prior review for the paper. Ganz later received a letter from Senior Vice President James Beasley informing him that they were not to distribute the paper on or off campus, he said.

“They didn’t allow the students to have the opportunity to say whether or not they thought it was appropriate for campus,” Ganz said. “So they basically decided for the students what they should or should not read on campus.”

The letter, dated Oct. 31, said the university took issue with the fact that the paper used the university’s trademark and that the “publication lacks a clear indication that ‘Common Sense’ is not a publication of Stetson University.” The letter then stated that further issues of the magazine would have to be submitted for “approval” by the university before going to press. And other officials weighed in, with Cross Cultural Center Director Shelley Wilson sending an e-mail to one of the magazine’s advertisers to complain and Dean of Students Michelle Espinosa supporting the ban.

Because Stetson is a private university, administrators there do not have the same constitutional limitations in censoring student media that are found at public institutions.

“It’s not like we [intended to] have controversial content,” Ganz said. “But it seems as though the dean of students is so adversely on the opposite scale of the content that’s in our magazine, once she reads certain things, just because she disagrees, she kind of gets fired up about it.”

Ganz said he was surprised by the university’s letter, but still willing to work with the university to get the publication’s first issue out.

“We offered several compromises to the content they had issues with so that we could just distribute it, because it was time sensitive material and we had advertisers we had to fill our contracts with,” Ganz said. “They, the school, basically did not want to compromise with us. They denied every compromise we offered.”

It was then that Ganz sought out the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to get the university to let them publish their magazine, Ganz said.

“Stetson’s attempt to quash unpopular or potentially offensive speech is a direct attack on freedom of the student press and shows a lack of respect for students’ freedom of expression, as well as a lack of confidence in students’ ability to recognize satire and appreciate dissent,” FIRE Program Manager Robert Shibley wrote in a Nov. 2 letter.

The university maintained its stance at first when FIRE contacted them, Ganz said. The staff for Common Sense went to work on their second issue, still unsure whether or not the university would allow them to distribute it. By the time it was time for the second issue to go to press in November, the pressure seemed to have worked.

“We produced our second issue and we actually asked the school for approval before we distributed,” Ganz said. “And after FIRE’s second letter to the school, it was pretty quick that they actually approved our second issue.”

The staff speculated that the publicity and public attention had worked in their favor, Ganz said.

Espinosa, the dean of students, said that the matter was more of an issue because the group is considered an off-campus group and not registered with the university as a student group, even though the staff and editors are students.

“We’ve asked that when they’re prepared to distribute future editions, they submit their request, just like we do with any off-campus group,” Espinosa said. “Usually when they make that request, they will submit a sample of what they’re preparing to distribute on the campus. It generally goes through our student activity office, and its really just to keep a record of what has been distributed more so than any type of prior review at this point.”

The university encouraged the publication to seek official recognition as a student organization but they chose not to, Espinosa said. Ganz said if the publication became a student organization, the school would have even greater control over content.

Although the second issue has been distributed, Ganz said administrators have not assured them they would not be censored again.

“We’re trying to work with the university because we do just want to get our magazine out there,” Ganz said. “[A]t this point they might have been starting to take steps and realizing we do have a right to put our magazine out and it seems as though we shouldn’t have any problems in the future.”

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Schools: Stetson University Cases: Stetson University: Viewpoint-Based Censorship of Student Magazine