It’s official: the editor who chose to republish some of the cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed at the University of Illinois has been fired by the paper’s board of directors. According to an article from CNN, “The Illini Media Co. board of directors, which comprises students and faculty, voted unanimously to fire the editor after a review ‘found that Gorton violated Daily Illini policies about thoughtful discussion of and preparation for the publication of inflammatory material,’ according to a statement.”
Earlier, the chancellor of the university sent a public letter commenting on the paper’s decision. He wrote:
I was saddened to see that The Daily Illini elected to highlight on its editorial page a collection of the infamous cartoons that have so offended Muslims around the world. I find the cartoons personally offensive and would have taken the position of numerous respected news organizations in America—including The Washington Post—and not run them. I believe that the DI could have engaged its readers in legitimate debate about the issues surrounding the cartoons’ publication in Denmark without publishing them. It is possible, for instance, to editorialize about pornography without publishing pornographic pictures.
The right of free speech and a free press are core values in American society, and I believe in them wholeheartedly. Yet the right to publish incendiary material does not mean a publication must publish that incendiary material.
In writing this, the chancellor echoed the sentiments of those university officials who have, however half-heartedly, defended the publication of the cartoons: they essentially defended others’ right to publish them but either dismissed or denigrated the decision to do so.
This was especially true at Johns Hopkins University, where FIRE’s own Charles Mitchell excellently represented the FIRE position on the cartoons on Monday at a panel discussion during which students displayed the cartoons. According to the Baltimore Sun, JHU official Denis O’Shea said the following:
What we have here is a very small group of students who are trying to get some attention for themselves…. The university very much regrets that a very small group of students has chosen to exercise their right to free speech in a way that was calculated really only to hurt fellow students rather than shed light on the issue…. That being said, they do have free speech, and there’s a tradition on this campus and at other universities of people being free to speak their minds.
While FIRE is pleased that these statements do show some respect for free speech, I am frankly getting tired of hearing how the republication of these cartoons is somehow unethical, irresponsible, unnecessary, or foolish. These cartoons are almost certainly the most relevant and newsworthy cartoons in history. One would be hard-pressed to come up with other cartoons or even images that have resulted in so much controversy, death, and international strife. It is rare that a single set of images can be an actual historical force—what on earth is irresponsible about a newspaper choosing to let the public see for themselves the images that people are dying over?
Republishing a cartoon or image because of its newsworthiness is never assumed to convey a paper’s agreement with the underlying message of the cartoon. Would a paper be accused of being intolerant if it ran a picture of someone burning a cross on someone’s yard? Only by those most determined to be offended. Most people would understand that the picture is there because it is relevant to a story, not because the paper supports the Ku Klux Klan.
Beyond that, the U of I chancellor’s suggestion that the paper could have merely related what the cartoons depict rather than showing them is inadequate for numerous reasons. First, verbal depictions of editorial cartoons usually end up interpreting cartoons, but part of the art of editorial cartooning is that the cartoon may be interpreted in any of a range of ways. The most infamous cartoon, the one depicting Mohammed with a bomb for a turban, was interpreted by one person at the JHU presentation this way: “It means that the Prophet Muhammad teaches terrorism. If you look at the face, it's an ugly face.... It really gives the impression that Arabs or Muslims are ugly people, and that they do ugly things.” Other interpretations, however, are just as easily possible, from “religion is a powder keg” to “Mohammed’s teachings are being used for violence.” Either way, it is not the job of the media to interpret the news for us when they can simply present us with the primary artifact.
Second, I have observed that any time you take a potentially offensive expression out of context and places quotes around it, the expression may seem far more sinister than it had been in context. I call this the “Lenny Bruce Effect”—derived from the famous 1960s comedian who was arrested multiple times for “obscenity” in his routine. When you see the filings against Bruce and his words in scare quotes, they can look awful; in the context of his show, however, were part of groundbreaking, ingenious comedy. I am not claiming that these cartoons rise at all to this level, but a common response from many who have actually seen the cartoons (including at least one radio host I spoke with who found the cartoons quite offensive) has been: “Is that it? That’s pretty banal for an editorial cartoon.”
There was a time when a newspaper would consider it not just its right to publish such relevant images, but its duty. Unless student and administrators recognize that there are valid pedagogical or informative reasons for showing these cartoons, I believe we will continue to see deplorable cases like that Century College’s abuse of Professor Karen Murdock.