Acton Gorton’s ‘Truly Astonishing Experience’

May 10, 2006
As FIRE’s internship coordinator, I am very excited about the opportunity to work with the 11 exceptional undergraduates and three outstanding law students who will spend the summer here. Readers may already be familiar with one of our undergraduate interns, Acton Gorton. As the editor-in-chief of The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Acton wrote a column about the Mohammed cartoons and published six of them. Soon after his column and the cartoons appeared, the paper’s board of directors suspended him and then terminated him as editor-in-chief. In response to his termination, Acton wrote the following column, which will appear for the first time here on The Torch:
I am now the former editor-in-chief of The Daily Illini, the student newspaper at the University of Illinois. On February 9, when I still had my job, I wrote a column about the controversy in Denmark regarding the Jyllands-Posten newspaper’s publication of editorial cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Alongside my column, I printed six of the cartoons in question.
The Danish newspaper’s depictions of Mohammed had sparked condemnation, riots, embassy sieges, and even murders around the world. For the sake of news, I decided this was a story—and there could be no story without the cartoons.
Before writing my column, I had read about the cartoons in newspapers, but I had never seen them. There seemed to be a petrifying fear from news editors across this country to not risk offending Muslims. It seemed to me that the images of terrorist bombings and executions overseas were having their desired effect: American newspapers were afraid.
As an editor, I faced the question: Does the value of letting my readers see the cartoons for themselves outweigh the negative consequences that might follow from my publishing them? Maybe it was my previous experience as an infantry soldier in the 82nd Airborne, but I wasn’t afraid for my safety or the safety of my staff. I couldn’t imagine any American attacking a college newspaper for printing a few cartoons. I finally decided that it is the job of the press to provide newsworthy information to the public, even when this information might be offensive to some people.
When the cartoons appeared on a Thursday in The Daily Illini, of course there were no ensuing murders, riots, death threats, flag burnings, or embassy attacks. There wasn’t even much of an outcry, except from the university’s chancellor, some local Muslims, and the newspaper’s publisher. At the urging of my publisher, I convened a staff meeting the following Monday and almost the entire newspaper staff, about 75 people altogether, showed up to voice its opinion about the cartoons’ publication. Two main complaints were raised: First, some were worried about their future career prospects if they were perceived to have worked for a hateful college newspaper. And second, others claimed to be genuinely worried that I had put everyone’s life at risk by publishing something offensive to Muslims. Rampaging terrorists and thugs from abroad had infected my newsroom with fear.
The next day, Opinions Editor Chuck Prochaska and I were suspended from the newspaper by the board of directors. (Chuck had been involved in the decision to publish the cartoons along with my column.) It was called a “cooling-off period,” but I was told to clean out my office, turn in my keys, and stay off the newspaper’s property. Within days of the suspension, the publisher circulated an e-mail to the alumni proclaiming that I was a liar seeking media glory. So much for the “cooling off.” Shortly thereafter, the editorial board wrote a “Question and Answer” forum for readers stating that Chuck and I had been suspended when the staff had mobbed the publisher and demanded that he get rid of me.
Next, the publisher and the “interim editors” removed all traces of the offending cartoons from the Daily Illini website, along with my commentary. They requested that Google remove any related material from their cache, and enacted a prohibition on mentioning anything about the incident in the newspaper. Puzzled readers who searched the Daily Illini archives could only find a criticism of me and my opinions editor.
Four days after my suspension, I started blogging. I supplied mostly random tidbits: links to people having discussions about me, small pieces about how I felt, and new things that I was learning. The blog was doing well and it was serving wonderfully for people interested in what was going on. But, because I was still an employee of the Daily Illini, the newspaper began pressuring me to obey a new no-blogging policy that had been specially enacted after my column was published. The board of directors wanted to control the flow of all information regarding the controversy.
To complete its coup, the board commissioned a secret, internal, student-run investigative task force to begin gathering information as to whether or not I had violated any newspaper policies. With the desire to get rid of me, and unable to fire me on the basis of my principles, they decided to make it an issue of process. I never had an opportunity to meet with the investigators.
Finally, a month after I was suspended, the board of directors summoned me into a conference room at a local hotel for a half-hour hearing. I walked into a room of stone-faced examiners with my lawyer, Junaid Afeef, a Muslim-American civil-rights attorney. The board was giving me my first and last chance to explain and defend my decision to publish the cartoons. I needed only ten minutes to state my case. When I was finished, they didn’t ask any questions.
The next day, at 7:09 p.m. on March 14, I got a brief e-mail saying that I was terminated. In the next day’s newspaper, the announcement of my firing was buried in the back of the paper under Campus Briefs. And that was that.
The Daily Illini never followed up with anything that could have turned this into a learning experience for the student body. When the newspaper did run a story about college newspapers across the country publishing the cartoons, it made no mention of the incident involving me. The reporter, Christine Won, reported about Harvard and the University of California at Irvine, but astoundingly forgot to mention anything about the University of Illinois.
It’s a truly astonishing experience to be summarily fired from your job and then erased from the public’s memory for trying to provide one’s readers with information pertaining to one of the most newsworthy stories of the year. It’s a nauseating pattern that one might have expected to find in the pages of a dystopian novel—but not at a modern American university.

Schools:  University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign