MISSOURI — The editor of a student newspaper at Southwest Missouri State University did not expect an editorial cartoon on Thanksgiving to spark controversy, but a student group’s complaint that the cartoon was discriminatory has landed her in school-sponsored mediation with the group this spring. The newspaper’s adviser, also under fire by the student group, refused to be involved in the mediation process.
Mandy Phillips, editor of The Standard, said the newspaper published “The 2nd Thanksgiving,” an editorial cartoon, the week before Thanksgiving depicting two American Indians in traditional headdress and one Pilgrim gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. One of the Pilgrims, speaking to another said, “Gladys, the Indians are here and it looks like they brought corn … Again.”
Although Phillips said the cartoon was “a nod to modern Thanksgiving traditions surrounding how families tend to stick with the same foods and the same cooks year after year,” members of American Indian Leaders of Today and Tomorrow said the cartoon was discriminatory and unnecessarily stereotypical.
Stephen Fullerton, president of the American Indian student group, wrote in a guest column published by The Standard that the paper “owes the American Indian population, as well as the larger student body, an apology for the inaccurate and untimely reporting of Native American Heritage and for this stunningly poor taste cartoon.”
Fullerton said he and other members of the group filed a complaint with the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity, which investigates violations of the school’s anti-discrimination policy. The policy states that no university office or university-sponsored activity can discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, disability or veteran status.
Phillips and Wanda Brandon, The Standard’s adviser, were told that the group demanded that the adviser and editor be fired, the staff go through diversity training, the paper devote one page periodically to multicultural or Native American issues and the paper issue an apology.
Phillips refused to comply with the requests and was informed by the Office of Equal Opportunity that the next step was mediation with the complaining party. Phillips said she signed a confidentiality agreement before entering into mediation.
“My hope was that sitting down and talking to the people who were upset, like rational adults, might give us more understanding [of each other’s viewpoints],” Phillips said. She said that she thought part of the problem was a lack of communication.
“The dispute wasn’t resolved to anything that met the standards of the complainants,” Phillips said. “Being agreeable probably didn’t help anything.”
Phillips said she agreed to the mediation because she wants the campus community to know that she cares “enough to sit down and listen to what they have to say.”
Brandon decided she would not participate in the mediation process because she “didn’t think it was right or legal.” She said that as an adviser, she does not have control over the paper’s content.
Brandon said she did not agree with Phillips’ decision to go through with the mediation process.
“I thought it was a bad move and sets a bad precedent,” she said. “When I decided it was wrong, I invited her to join me … she said she didn’t want to, and she decided to do the mediation.”
Both Brandon and Phillips said they are waiting to see if formal complaints will be filed against them.
Greg Lukianoff, the director for legal and public advocacy with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he has written legal opinion letters to the university on behalf of Phillips and Brandon.
“The investigation of First Amendment-protected activities for potential punishment is generally considered to be far beyond the power of any state official or agency of the state for fairly obvious reasons,” Lukianoff said. “At the current level, it’s certainly very chilling what they’re doing, investigating something that could not be more clearly protected.”
Lukianoff said that the Office of Equal Opportunity should not be involved.
“This has been settled in the realm of public debate and discussion,” Lukianoff said. “If the Native American students are angry that people didn’t wholeheartedly agree with them … that may be regrettable for them, but that doesn’t mean they suddenly have the right to appeal to official power to censor.”
The Office of Equal Opportunity declined to comment on the case.