NORTH CAROLINA — A Southern heritage watchdog group is calling on the East Carolina University board of trustees to sanction the East Carolinian student newspaper for an opinion column that called the Confederate flag a symbol of racism.
School officials declined to pursue the matter, saying the East Carolinian is staffed and controlled by ECU students and does not speak for the school.
In his Oct. 14 column, East Carolina senior and opinion columnist Peter Kalajian said the Confederate flag and the Nazi swastika are “morally relative” symbols that stand for hate, oppression and murder. People who fly the flag are “overlooking the racial implications inherent in the very symbol they hold so high,” Kalajian wrote.
In response to the column, My Dixie Forever, a self-styled Southern heritage group, began an online petition to request that the university investigate the “hate speech” in Kalajian’s column. The petition asks the university and the board of trustees to discipline Kalajian and East Carolinian Editor in Chief Amanda Lingerfelt for “failing to fulfill proper editorial discretion” in publishing the column that they said was printed “to incite racial animosity.” Since efforts to extract an apology or retraction from the paper failed, the group said in a statement, they called on the school to levy sanctions against the newspaper.
“No one, on our side, feels that student newspapers should be edited in such a way as to infringe on the paper’s right to free speech,” My Dixie Forever spokesman Jim Hickmon said. “However, I think that sometimes editors don’t do their jobs. In this particular case, had the editors of the newspaper … really looked at that piece and thought about the impact it was going to have on a certain population … they may have thought twice about it.”
The petition was sent on Nov. 1 to the university board of trustees and the student media board, which is made up of East Carolina students and faculty, Hickmon said. According to a statement released by the university, school officials “do not intend to get involved in the editorial decisions of the student newspaper.”
“Student newspapers in the United States, including the East Carolinian, have a long history of spirited expression and controversy,” university attorney Ben Irons said in the statement. “We may not agree with everything printed by the East Carolinian, but we will certainly not try to infringe on its First Amendment freedoms.”
The university chancellor and the chairman of the board of trustees did not respond to calls and e-mails for further comment.
But Hickmon said he and the group do not believe the First Amendment prevents the university from taking action against the paper, such as a revocation of university money or evicting the paper from university-owned buildings, even if the action were in response to the paper’s content.
“If the board of trustees were to tell the East Carolinian that they had to pay rent … move off campus, pay for their own building, file for federal funding, that would not be a violation of their First Amendment right,” Hickmon said. “If they came in there and told them what to write, that would be a different story.”
Kalajian said that despite the “overwhelmingly negative” response his column received, support from the paper’s editors has been “unwavering.” The paper published an editorial on Oct. 21 in response to the backlash.
“While we may not agree with the [column] in its entirety, we do recognize it as an issue that many individuals in our community are concerned with and we respect the writer’s right to express his opinion, as well as the rights of those who choose to wave the Confederate flag proudly,” the editorial said. “As journalists and American citizens, we are deeply saddened that individuals would go to such great lengths to censure a freedom entitled to all of us — the freedom of speech.”
Kalajian said the reaction has not deterred him from printing columns about other controversial topics.
“I have access to a forum to get opinions out there that I think are relevant and important,” he said. “I’m not going to doctor or water down my opinion because of where I am or what people’s responses might be.”