Sex toy cover prompts journalism chairman to pull student magazine off racks at San Francisco State University

The head of the journalism department at San Francisco State University confiscated hundreds of copies of a campus magazine in mid-December before releasing them three days later.

Editors ran a photo of sex toys on the cover of [X]press magazine to promote an “exclusive” story on a San Francisco dildo factory. The magazine was distributed on Dec. 13, but less than a day later, John Burks, chairman of the journalism department, decided to yank the issue from news racks.

Katie Rosenfeld, managing editor of [X]press, said she was shocked to learn the issue had been pulled. Burks did not consult with her about taking the magazine, she said.

Rosenfeld said that only after a meeting between [X]press editors and Burks did the possibility of redistribution seem likely. The magazine was put back on news racks on Monday.

Burks, whose department oversees all student publications, said his intention was not to censor the magazine. Instead, he wanted to call a “timeout” to discuss the cover art with other faculty members, he said.

“This was about what the public will and will not stand for,” Burks said. “Students didn’t go to an adult bookstore and ask for this, they got it by walking through the student union.

“We didn’t censor the magazine,” he added. “It’s out there now and most copies are probably already gone.”

Rosenfeld said after her meeting with Burks, a vote was conducted, mostly via e-mail, in which faculty members decided to redistribute the magazine.

Burks stood by his decision and said his only regret was that the faculty could not use the incident as a teaching lesson because students have already recessed for winter break. He also said he would not hesitate to collect the magazine in the future if it contained libelous material or sensitive information, such as the contents of a nuclear bomb.

San Francisco State University has a unique relationship between the journalism faculty and student publications. Since students work on the newspaper and magazine as laboratory publications for course credit, the faculty retains some control over publications.

The department’s policy states that “the faculty gives editorial control to the students, with the final decision-making in the hands of the editor-in-chief.” The document also says, “The department chair has the authority to decide on all matters of non-editorial policy, such as printing, accounting, circulation, advertising, budgeting and bidding.”

Burks said he was within the guidelines of the policy when he collected the magazines because of the circulation clause.

One of Burks’ predecessors, who wrote the policy, said Burks has misinterpreted the reference to circulation.

“Circulation means you have a responsibility to have it circulated,” said Betty Medsger, a former department chairwoman. “It’s the chair’s responsibility to see that the money is raised to publish and circulate, certainly not to repress by withdrawing from circulation.”

Medsger drafted the policy and the department approved it in 1988 to protect the rights of student journalists, who interact often with faculty members given the structure of the publications.

“We thought it was important to clarify that faculty members were not to have any editorial control,” she said. “The policy was meant so something like this would never happen.”

SPLC VIEW: We’re not censoring. We’re calling a “time-out.” Over the years, we’ve heard plenty of euphemisms for censorship, but we have to admit – that’s a new one.