\nMASSACHUSETTS – When Alesha Itella took on the job of editor\nin chief of the student newspaper at Worcester State College,\nshe did not expect to find herself in an uphill battle with her\nschool over First Amendment principles. But that is exactly what\nhappened to Itella after her decision to print a controversial\neditorial caused an uproar among Worcester State faculty and students.
The situation began after Itella printed an opinion piece by\nWilliam Pierce, the head of a white supremacist group, the National\nAlliance, on the editorial page of The Student Voice, Worcester\nState’s student newspaper. The piece was essentially a commentary\non the media coverage of the dragging death of James Byrd Jr.\nin Jasper, Texas.
“The article was racist in nature,” Itella said.\n”But when I saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s an idiot,\npeople should read this.'”
Most of the opinion pieces in The Student Voice typically\ncame from non-university sources, Itella said, because she rarely\nreceived submissions from students. In the case of the Pierce\neditorial, Itella received it as part of a blanket mailing that\nwas distributed to a number of student and commercial media outlets.
Itella ran the Pierce article on the editorial page, accompanied\nby not one, but two disclaimers emphasizing that none of the opinions\nexpressed on that particular page were to be considered as representative\nof the college, the newspaper or its staff. These disclaimers,\nhowever, did not shield Itella from the confrontational responses\nshe received from both administrators and students.
The first indication that the editorial was being met with\nconcern came about two days after the paper was distributed. Itella\nbumped into a student who told her that she might be getting some\nfeedback on the editorial.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” Itella said. “I\nhad run controversial things before.”
A week later, however, Itella said the situation had escalated\nfrom a few passing complaints to a full-scale protest.
“Suddenly, I heard that there were mobs of people waving\nnewspapers in the student center and yelling for my head on a\nplate,” Itella said.
About 30 students showed up at the paper’s next staff meeting\ncalling for Itella’s dismissal as editor in chief. She also received\nletters from several members of the faculty and administration\nscolding her for printing the editorial.
“After [the article] ran, I was suddenly known as this\nbigot who was out to destroy the harmony of the Worcester student\npopulation,” Itella said.
Several faculty members insinuated that Itella would be forcibly\nremoved from her position as editor in chief, but the paper’s\nconstitution stipulated that a vote of the paper’s staff was needed\nto impeach her.
Although Itella could have remained the paper’s editor–her\nstaff was entirely on her side–she eventually decided that keeping\nher job was not worth the near constant harassment she was enduring.\nItella resigned from the editor in chief post in May.
“I think if people spent a little more time thinking,\nthey would have directed their anger to the proper source, which\nis the guy who wrote it,” Itella said. “It has become\nvery evident that people don’t understand the concept of the First\nAmendment.”
Kalyan Ghosh, president of the college, was among those who\nsent Itella a letter of admonishment for what he referred to as\nher lapse of judgment.
“The issue was that all of a sudden, from out of the blue,\nthis article was published that contained quite a radical viewpoint,”\nGhosh said. “The man made some very offensive statements\nand belittled the whole issue [of the Jasper murder].”
Ghosh said although he did send Itella a letter expressing\nhis disappointment in her choice to run such a story, he took\nno further action. He did not see the First Amendment as a concern\nbut viewed the matter as an issue of good versus bad taste in\nnews judgment.
“There was a furor among the students and faculty over\nthe publication of this article,” Ghosh said. “To me,\nit was just not a nice thing to publish in our college newspaper.”
Although Itella resigned, she refuses to apologize for her\neditorial decision.
“I still believe in the principles behind what I did,”\nItella said. “Even though we don’t like what this man had\nsaid, he still has a right to say it.”\n