As those who follow FIRE know, the student press is often a target of college and university administrators who would rather conduct the operations of the university without the glaring light of public exposure shining upon them. Quinnipiac University is probably the foremost recent example of this tendency. Unfortunately, though, censorship of the press on campus is increasingly not the sole province of the powers that be. The University of Arizona’s Daily Wildcat found that out when it mistakenly published a syndicated political cartoon that used most of the letters of a racial slur as part of social commentary about voters for President-elect Barack Obama. Due to an error in the editorial department of the Daily Wildcat, the cartoon in question was published rather than the cartoon actually picked by the editor-in-chief. (The same cartoon caused controversy when it was printed in The Montclarion student newspaper at Montclair State University in New Jersey, although it was not printed erroneously.)
The Daily Wildcat, then, found itself in the middle of a firestorm over its accidental publication of a political cartoon that offended many on campus. Faced with massive criticism over a piece that the newspaper did not even deliberately choose to run, the temptation must have been overwhelming for the paper to issue an abject apology for "offending the community" or to offer to undergo whatever ideologically driven punishment was being demanded by the offended persons.
While there has been no sign so far that Arizona’s administration is demanding that the Daily Wildcat be punished, there are those who are demanding that administrators take action. Organizers of an election "celebration" entitled "Stop the Hate & Celebrate: Yes We Did!" listed one of their four goals as "We want the Arizona Daily Wildcat to be accountable for the education of their staff members with specific MANDATORY training in diversity and tolerance so this never happens again." (It should be noted that even though the event was billed as an election celebration, all four goals for the event had to do with the newspaper’s printing of the cartoon.)
In response, the Daily Wildcat struck back with an extremely strong and persuasive editorial condemning those who were agitating for the punishment of the staff or other sanctions. Entitled "Press’s freedom at stake in attempt to bully Wildcat," the entire editorial is very much worth reading. Here are some highlights:
Aside from the fact that the comic strip was neither about nor drawn by anyone in Tucson, it was not deliberately chosen for print by anyone at the Wildcat. But there’s a larger issue at stake – the issue of the Wildcat’s credibility as an independent newspaper.
It is not the responsibility of the Arizona Daily Wildcat to "represent" any community, even the campus community, any more than it would be the New York Times’s responsibility to "represent" the people of New York. A newspaper’s responsibility is to print the facts. It is not an organ of social change or an instrument to promote the values of "change, diversity and unity."
Finally, and most troublingly, the event is meant to make the Daily Wildcat "accountable for the education of their staff members with specific MANDATORY (sic) training in diversity and tolerance so this never happens again."
This is out of the question. It is the business of the Daily Wildcat, not the community, to police its content. To allow the community to make its editorial decisions would be to abdicate its responsibility as an independent newspaper – something we refuse to do.
We view this declaration of "MANDATORY training" as a threat of a punitive measure – one that many may not realize the UA cannot legally enforce against the Daily Wildcat.
While the comic strip was not intended for publication, its content is still protected under the First Amendment, and retaliatory action against the expression of non-libellous speech strikes at the heart of freedom of the press.
Thanks to the editors of the Daily Wildcat for standing up for freedom of the press. They should know that if they are ordered to undergo "MANDATORY" diversity training, FIRE will be there to defend them.