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Cartoon Controversy at the University of Virginia

Being a political cartoonist is a thankless task these days. From the worldwide controversy surrounding the famous Danish Mohammed cartoons, to more localized dustups at places like Harvard Business School and Missouri State University, it seems that to be a political cartoonist (or the person who publishes such cartoons) is to constantly risk not just condemnation but censorship by those who dislike your opinions. Now this virus of intolerance of political cartoons has hit the University of Virginia, where Inside Higher Ed reports that student cartoonist Grant Woolard is facing calls for an apology and his firing for two cartoons in the Cavalier Daily student newspaper.

The first cartoon in question has the text “Ethiopian Food Fight” below a picture of black men in loincloths fighting with non-food items such as branches, chairs, and a boot. The second cartoon depicts Thomas Jefferson holding a whip, standing over a bed with a black woman on it. The text reads, “Thomas, could we try role-play for a change?”

Response to these cartoons was depressingly familiar: people calling the cartoons “racism,” claiming that this “crossed the boundary,” demanding the firing of the cartoonist, and filing “bias reports” (no less than 65 of them). The newspaper, “working with” administrators, did indeed apologize for publishing the cartoon, and the cartoonist apologized for the “Ethiopian Food Fight” cartoon as well, explaining that the point of the cartoon was that in the worst famines, people are forced to eat non-food items—in other words, they were fighting with their “food,” not for food, and the point of the cartoon was not to mock Ethiopians but to draw attention to their plight. The second cartoon is clearly making the argument that sexual relations between a master and slave cannot be said to be between equals.

It is, of course, the right of students to protest the publishing of a cartoon in a newspaper. However, as happens all too often on college campuses, this protest turned into an attempt to exercise a heckler’s veto over the constitutionally protected speech in the cartoons through the 65 “bias reports” to the administration. The existence of these “bias reports” goes a long way towards explaining why the UVa administration got involved in a dispute that should have been solely between the Cavalier Daily and the protesting students. And make no mistake—from the article, it’s clear that the UVa administration was all over this case. (“Both administrators and editors expressed a willingness to work together to resolve the issue,” “[Herb] Ladley [the paper’s editor] spoke with university deans throughout the day,” etc.)

In the end, the hecklers did get what they wanted: Ladley will not be accepting cartoon submissions from Woolard “until further notice” and has scheduled a meeting on Sunday night to discuss Woolard’s future at the paper. Both of Woolard’s cartoons were designed to emphasize the plight of the powerless. Now Woolard will get to experience that plight for himself—thankfully, to a far lesser degree.

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