Race-related material raises free-speech, ethical debate

The spring semester brought a slew of allegations of racism against student newspapers nationwide, adding to several controversies reported in the last year. Students responded to questionable coverage in a variety of ways, while newspaper staffers defended the spoofs, editorials and news stories that landed them under scrutiny. 

At Reed College in Portland, Ore., two student editors resigned amid allegations of racism and a campus-wide campaign that threatened to oust them from their elected positions.

Co-editors Jesse Hoffman and Melelani Sax-Barnett faced campus outrage after they published a spoof of the popular Web site, Hot or Not, which asks viewers to submit their pictures and allows others to rate them. A center-spread article in The Reed College Quest entitled “Academic or Not?” spoofed several humanities professors, including Pancho Savery, who is black.

The spoof of Savery asked, “Incendiary afrocentrist with alarmist concerns? Enlightened intellectual [sic] with informed opinions? He preaches multiculturalism, but is his agenda unscrupulously black and white? You decide.”

Three students circulated a petition to rescind the elected positions of Hoffman and Sax-Barnett. The petition was signed by the required 20 percent of students needed to order a recall election. Shortly after the petition circulated, Hoffman and Sax-Barnett resigned. 

Student body President Dan Denvir said the petition gave insight into what Reed College students want their newspaper to publish.

“At Reed, the student body is the editors of the paper,” Denvir said. “What the recall petition said was that they wanted editors who followed different editorial guidelines than what Jesse did.”

In a letter of resignation e-mailed to the entire Reed College Community, Hoffman maintains he had a right to print the spoof.

He wrote, “I believe the fundamental tenet of a genuinely liberal paper is that it prints the most outrageous and despicable opinions so that its opponents can duly challenge them — that the marketplace of ideas necessitates a range of opinions barring anything that is libelous or obscene.”

Savery said despite his disgust with the paper’s spoof, he initially opposed suggestions for a recall.

“I found the original piece to be incredibly offensive, unquestionably racist, in extremely poor taste and stupid,” Savery said. “Nevertheless, the bottom line is however poorly [Hoffman] was doing it, he was trying to criticize things he didn’t like about what I do in the classroom. He has the right to make his critique of me.”

Another newspaper stood by its decision to run a spoof and editorial criticizing a proposal by two student groups to establish a permanent Tagalog and Philippine studies program at the University of California at Irvine. The articles, which ran in the March edition of the Irvine Review, a conservative campus newspaper, prompted a boycott of the publication’s advertisers and the theft of 500 papers.

The Review published an editorial calling the efforts of the Tagalog and Pilipino Studies Kollective, also known as TAPS, and Kaba, a Filipino-American student organization, “sheer lunacy” in light of recent budget cuts and said the creation of such a program would lead to a more divided campus. 

Publisher Ryan Mykita said 500 of the 3,000 press run were stolen shortly after distribution. Additionally, several students approached Irvine Review advertisers and threatened a boycott of their businesses. Shaun Ito, owner and manager of the Lollicup Tea Zone, said he was confronted by several students who said they would no longer patronize his store.

“It caused a lot of trouble because [the editorial] mentioned Kaba, which is one of my biggest customer bases,” Ito said. 

The Lollicup Tea Zone advertisement ran under another ad placed by the Review staff that urged readers to support the paper’s “sponsors” by patronizing their businesses. Ito said his ad’s placement caused many students to assume his store supported the paper’s mission.

The Review ran an ad in the New University, UC-Irvine’s primary student newspaper, to clarify that advertisers do not sponsor the paper, and the boycott ceased. Nathan Masters, editor of the Review, said staff members plan to go about business as usual.

“We will not back down because of this controversy,” Masters said. “There was nothing wrong with what we printed.”

Editors in Connecticut say a newspaper theft they experienced this spring was related to accusations of racist content.

Thousands of copies of The Daily Campus at the University of Connecticut were found in trash bags in front of the school library in early March. Campus police remain mum over their investigation, but editor Elizabeth Hathaway said she thinks the thieves, who stole almost all of the paper’s 10,000 press run, could have been angry about a recent commentary that criticized the campus African-American cultural center. 

In the piece, Daily Campus commentator Josh Levinson claimed the cultural center was propagating segregation and racism by holding events he said were exclusively for black students. In an editorial printed the next day, the staff defended its decision to publish the commentary. 

“At the end of the day, the First Amendment protects all speech, which may include speech we hate,” the editorial stated.

Aly Colón, diversity program director at the Poynter Institute, said student journalists often have trouble striking a balance between free speech and ethical reporting. He said students must be careful and thoughtful when deciding what to print.

“Freedom comes with responsibilities,” Colón said. “It’s not an unlimited right or excuse to be able to do anything you want. The truth is that journalism really is an occupation that is a service to others and, from that standpoint, journalists need to take into consideration the perspectives and thinking of the people they cover. ”

During the events at Reed, UC-Irvine and Connecticut, administrators did not take a public stand. However, officials at two other universities have supported their newspapers’ rights to free speech.

The University of Michigan stood behind The Michigan Daily during its bout with a boycott by some students, who claimed the paper was insensitive in its coverage of minorities. 

University spokesperson Julie Peterson told the Detroit News that the Daily “has a long history of editorial freedom, which the administration is not planning to change.”

And after The Retriever Weekly at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County published a satirical column about black history month that some students called racist, university President Freeman A. Hrabowski III sent a campus-wide e-mail affirming his support of students’ First Amendment rights.

“When someone, regardless of race, decides to write something that may be offensive to some of us, we then have an opportunity to look carefully at our different points of view — with honesty,” Hrabowski wrote. “In fact, I contend that in a university, people should be encouraged to say or write whatever they believe — because it is difficult to examine or change attitudes if people never express their true beliefs.”