Cartoon sets off censorship battle

CALIFORNIA ‘ It all started with a political cartoon depicting two Muslims standing in the hand of the devil surrounded by the fires of hell.

The drawing by professional cartoonist Darrin Bell appeared in the Sept. 18 issue of The Daily Californian. Then the pandemonium began when more than 100 protesters participated in a sit-in at the paper’s office on the University of California at Berkeley campus. They refused to leave and demanded the paper apologize for publishing the cartoon.

The protesters inhibited the newspaper’s staff from doing their jobs and they disrupted staffers by banging on walls and chanting, editor Janny Hu said. Police were eventually called to escort the remaining protesters out of the office around 3 a.m. on Sept. 19 and issued them citations for trespassing.

The Daily Californian opted not to pursue any legal action against the protesters, other than calling the police.

‘I don’t know if it is appropriate for a university setting, or if it would have been the best course to take at the time,’ Hu said. ‘The main concern that night was preventing the protesters from trespassing.’

In a retaliatory act, the Berkeley student senate passed a bill on Oct. 10 calling for a front-page apology for the cartoon and asking the newspaper staff to attend a sensitivity training class.

The legislation directly refers to the editorial cartoon, stating, ‘The cartoon may promote the kind of harmful stereotyping that has led to the murder of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Southeast Asians across the country.’

‘We felt that the cartoon put students in a dangerous position because we heard of reports of harassment against Muslims,’ said Sajid Khan, a student senator who sponsored the bill. ‘We felt the cartoon further perpetuated the same type of ignorance and intolerance that led to that type of harassment.’

In an earlier version of the bill, the sponsors were calling for $8,000-per-month rent increase for the newspaper, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The contract between the newspaper and the student government is renegotiated at the end of each year.

Stressing the paper’s free-press rights, Hu said, ‘I think it’s unfortunate that the situation with the cartoon escalated to the point that our student government would feel the need to come out against our newspaper, and condemn us for something that we have the legal right and authority to do.’

A few weeks after the legislation passed, some individuals decided to take the matter into their own hands, and stole more than 1,000 copies of the Oct. 24 issue. The stolen copies were replaced with fliers calling for a boycott of the paper.

The fliers were not only in response to the newspaper’s handling of the cartoon, but also made reference to an advertisement that ran in the Oct. 24 issue. The fliers, which were not attributed to any individual or organization, said the ad was ‘irrational and inflammatory.’

The full-page advertisement was an essay, titled ‘End States Who Sponsor Terrorism,’ paid for by the Ayn Rand Institute. Leonard Peikoff, founder of the institute and author of the ad, called for the elimination of ‘Iran’s terrorist sanctuaries’ and the use of military weaponry in ‘bringing down every branch of its government.’

‘It is definitely an attempt to violate our free speech and the free speech of the newspaper,’ said Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute.

The campus police are investigating the theft but there are no suspects, Capt. Bill Cooper said.

With all of the hurdles to overcome in protecting their free-press rights, Daily Californian editors have been careful to make sure the content is not curtailed to appease the critics of the paper.

‘It is not affecting our editorial content,’ Hu said. ‘We will continue to be an open forum for discussion, especially on our opinion pages because, we encourage the distribution of a wide variety of opinions and we are not going to censor anyone for their opinions.’