This Month in FIRE History: Missouri State’s Attack on Press Freedom

By April 20, 2012

Eight years ago this month, FIRE continued its fight for freedom of the press at Southwest Missouri State University (SMSU, currently known as Missouri State University), renewing pressure on the school after it targeted the campus paper The Standard for an "offensive" cartoon.  

The controversy began in November 2003, when The Standard printed the following cartoon entitled "The 2nd Thanksgiving." 

The cartoonist (who is, himself, of Native American descent) later explained, "The point of the cartoon has nothing to do with Native Americans or Pilgrims … I was trying to reflect a common Thanksgiving tradition of a host griping about what their guest has brought to the dinner." 

Nonetheless, the SMSU student group American Indian Leaders of Today and Tomorrow filed a discrimination complaint and on December 5, Jana Estergard of SMSU’s Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) contacted Professor Wanda Brandon, the faculty advisor for The Standard, explaining that an investigation had been opened into the paper, its editor-in-chief Mandy Phillips, and Brandon herself. After more than a month, Estergard finally provided the details of the complaint, which alleged that The Standard had violated a religious freedom law, a civil rights act, and university policy-all simply by publishing the cartoon. Estergard also warned the paper not to cover the story of its investigation, pointing to an OEO regulation that prohibited the target of an investigation from divulging the fact that he or she is being investigated. 

Rather than submit to a mediation process which she felt threatened the rights of the paper, Brandon contacted FIRE, and in March of 2004 we wrote to SMSU reminding the university of its obligation to respect the First Amendment. In its responses, the school simultaneously claimed that no one had been threatened with punishment while also stating that it was "impossible" to rule out further campus judicial hearings against the campus newspaper and its editor. Furthermore, SMSU argued that federal law required an investigation of any charge of "discrimination." But, as FIRE pointed out, "the publication of unquestionably protected speech is neither discrimination nor a legitimate basis for ignoring the First Amendment." While SMSU claimed there would not be any disciplinary actions against Brandon, just months later she was removed from the Student Publications Advisory Board.  

The Standard‘s experiences reflected deeper problems on campus. Just two years later, SMSU would be the home of another shocking case, when social work student Emily Brooker was punished for refusing to sign a letter to the Missouri state legislature in support of homosexual adoption as part of a mandatory class assignment. That case led to a federal lawsuit and eventually a settlement on behalf of Brooker.  

Meanwhile, SMSU never apologized for its treatment of The Standard and its disregard for freedom of the press. On a campus with speech codes that earn it a "red light" rating, the school’s history sadly comes as no surprise. 

Schools: Missouri State University