Anti-Israel commentary in student paper elicits strong response at Calif. college

CALIFORNIA — A commentary piece that argued “Israel isthe largest and most dangerous terrorist organization” polarized students,faculty and community members at Santa Rosa Junior College over the right of thestudent newspaper to publish potentially inflammatory work — andthreatened physical harm for the student editor who OK’d itspublication.The piece titled “Is Anti-Semitism Ever The Result Of JewishBehavior?” was published in the Oak Leaf on March 18, but strong reactionto it has enveloped the campus for nearly two months, culminating in an academicsenate resolution that passed last week. The senate, which oversees thecollege’s curriculum, requested that the communication studies department reviewhow its faculty teaches journalism ethics, said senate President GregGranderson.Critics of the Oak Leaf‘s decision to print the piecehope the senate’s recommendation will lead to more faculty oversight at thestudent newspaper, which is produced in a journalism course with studentseditors making final editorial decisions. Those who oppose the paper’s decision,including Jewish faculty members, religious organizations and college PresidentRobert Agrella, say the newspaper should never have published the commentarypiece because it constituted hate speech. The opinion piece written bySanta Rosa student Kevin McGuire partially blamed the United States forproviding foreign aid to Israel, for what he called, “the Zionist Jews’ …genocidal war against the Arab world.” McGuire quoted Osama bin Laden, providedstatistics of Palestinian deaths attributed to Israeli military operations andespoused many arguments made by white supremacists. He wrote that “on September11, 2001 our nation was targeted by Arab terrorists not because they ‘hate ourfreedoms’ but because we are supplying the bullets that kill their children.”Since the commentary’s publication nearly two months ago, the two-yearcommunity college in northern California has heightened security to combatthreats to the student newspaper and Jewish campus members. EditorKristinae Toomians, who made the decision to run McGuire’s piece, was offered apolice escort after she was mailed four death threats in April and a poster of aswastika with the words, “Nazi supporter,” was left on her car. The deaththreats were only signed the Hate Task Force; however, she fears someone sent them oncampus. She turned down the police escort, but student journalists remain lockedout of the office for The Oak Leaf without faculty supervision. Jewishfaculty members and students also received anti-Semitic e-mails and lettersafter the Aryan Nation posted the article on its Web site. The Hate FreeTask Force, a campus group that promotes ethnic understanding, called on theOak Leaf to apologize for running the piece and promise not to runanymore “hateful” material in the future. Some faculty also requested thatToomians and her newspaper adviser, adjunct professor Rich Mellott, resign fromtheir posts and that prior review of the newspaper’s editorial content beimplemented.Their demands remain unmet as the newspaper staff andjournalism faculty argue that college newspapers are protected under the FirstAmendment to publish material, such as the commentary piece, when it is not deemedlibelous or does not incite violence. For the time being, tensions atthe campus have subsided as death threats have stopped and strong criticism of thenewspaper has been curtailed. But Mellott and Toomians said they wonderwhat the ultimate shakedown from the commentary will be as the communicationstudies department has until next fall to evaluate its curriculum. They worrythat Mellott, a non-tenured professor, could be let go and more pressure couldbe placed on student editors not to print articles on controversialtopics.Toomians said she had hoped the article, which appeared in theop-ed section of the paper under the heading “opposing views,” would arousediscussion on campus but said she did not expect such a backlash.”As avoice for students, I think it is important to cover a wide range of opinions,”she said. “The reason why I published the thing in the first place is I thoughtit would promote a serious discussion. I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody, butobviously I did.”President Agrella said McGuire’s commentary wasterrible and that it should never have been printed. “Do they have aright to print it? Of course,” he said. “I think you make decisions on what isgoing to be printed based on how it is going to affect either individuals orgroups.”In an April 1 letter to the editor published by The OakLeaf, anthropology professor Ben Benson called for Toomians and Mellott toresign their position and apologize to the Jewish communities of SonomaCounty.”Although they will both probably hide behind First Amendmentprotections, the editor clearly cannot distinguish between controversialdiscourse and hatred,” wrote Benson, who is Jewish. “She has failed in herresponsibility to her readers. … [Mellott] either was asleep at the wheel orhe agrees with the decision of the editor. In either case, he should also resignbecause he has failed to teach his students to identify the ranting of a hatemonger.”The Hate Free Task Force condemned the newspaper for running thepiece in its letter to the editor. “The Oak Leaf [should] exercise moresocial responsibility and greater oversight regarding the articles they print,”it wrote.Toomians said the newspaper staff decided that there wasnothing to apologize about because McGuire’s piece was an opinion, which wasrebutted by a staff writer in the next issue. Toomians said that she did send apersonal letter of apology to Agrella and Granderson.”As an individual,I was sorry for the hurt this article might have caused, but I wasn’t sorry forprinting it because it is protected speech.”Agrella said some articlesare not worth printing even if they are not defamatory orlibelous.”Ultimately the newspaper has the right to publish whatever itwants, but they ought to know some of the ramifications of printing certainkinds of articles and they ought to be trained and ought to know something aboutprofessional ethics. That should be the adviser’s role. The word adviser meanssomething, not just someone that passes on,” he said.In his role asadviser, Mellott said he discusses with the students his concerns overfact-checking content, fairness in reporting and the potential of libelousmaterial. He said that student editors ultimately decide what to print, butafter the issue is distributed, he critiques the articles so the studentjournalists improve throughout the semester.Debate over an adviser’srole sparked the academic senate to join the fray. Despite the fact that the lawrequires it, Granderson said some senate members were concerned when Mellottsaid in a meeting with them that he left final publication decisions tostudents.Under the resolution that passed the academic senate on May 7,Granderson said the communication studies department must look into itscurriculum by October 2003 to determine whether faculty is teaching journalismethics in their courses, including the student newspaper. Grandersonacknowledged that he did not know whether faculty members already incorporate ethics intheir classes.Mellott said that students in his class take a look atethics every week, along with libel, as they produce the newspaper. He said thetextbooks already include codes of ethics, but one thing the students need to dois start interpreting those codes for how they apply to certainstories.Mark Nelson, the incoming chairperson of the communicationstudies department, said he thought a review of curriculum is always beneficialbut that the resolution was a hasty reaction to an isolated controversy. He saidit was a matter of political correctness.”No one ought to imply thatthere are ethical problems in the journalism program because of onecontroversial article,” he said. “If there was a pattern, I could see there maybe a reason for concern.” Although not specifically stated in theresolution, Granderson said the communication studies department should decidewhether an editorial board for The Oak Leaf should be established thatwould determine what articles ought to be published. But he did not specifywhether faculty would be on this editorial board. “I think the facultyand the student realize that this in an instructional issue. I don’t think thatfor one second that 19-year-olds know everything about the field of journalism,and they need instruction,” he said. “The communications department should learnthey need to be more involved in the day-to-day operation of the newspaper, notto be in control of it, but just know what is happening with the student writersand the student editor.”A member of the academic senate had earlierproposed that faculty members review newspaper content prior to publication but thatlanguage was kept out of the final resolution.Toomians said thenewspaper plans to put together an editorial board comprised of Oak Leafstaff to discuss controversial article topics and vote on whether to publishthem. But she said the staff would fight any recommendation that a faculty membersit on that board.”On the most basic level, it is a student newspaper.And as soon as you put a faculty member anywhere near it, it stops being astudent newspaper,” she said. “[Faculty members] are more than welcome to starttheir own newspaper, but I would like to keep this newspaper primarily havingstudent voices in it.”Nelson also said that he would not support aproposal for a faculty member to sit on an editorial board for The OakLeaf.Toomians said she would be more selective in what the newspaper publishesin the future. “It definitely will make us not print something like thatagain for fear of physical safety,” she said. “I don’t feel much more safe witha faculty member present. … I feel safe [just] as long as I am withsomebody.”Toomians said the staff only has a fraction of the time toproduce the biweekly newspaper now that the newspaper office is locked exceptfor class time and when a faculty member is present. But she said thiscontroversy has actually re-awakened her love of journalism, rather than stifledit.”I think I will be more thoughtful when putting together thenewspaper,” she said. “One thing I think I have also learned is it is justremarkable how people try to take away your freedom of speech. I didn’t realizehow easy it could be.”