Student editors suspended after publishing Muhammad cartoons

ILLINOIS– Two editors atThe Daily Illini were suspended Mondaynight, five days after they decided to publish the controversial Danish cartoonsof the Muslim prophet, Muhammad.

Mary Cory, the newspaper’spublisher, suspended Editor in Chief Acton Gorton and opinion editor ChuckProchaska because the two did not consult with the entire editorial board andother editors before publishing the cartoons, said one of the paper’s interim editors in chief, Jason Koch.

“This was the tipping point of many smaller incidents. The staff said enough is enough,” Koch said.

A statement released by Koch and co-interim editor in chief Shira Weissman said Cory made the decision to suspendGorton and Prochaska “only after it was requested by other student membersof this newspaper and a newsroom-wide staff meeting about theissue.”

Student members of the newspaper staff are not allowedto suspend an editor in chief, according to the statement. Cory, who is not astudent, acts as the newspaper’s publisher and adviser.

Gortonsaid that as editor in chief, he is not obligated to receive the approval of theeditorial board or other editors before he publishes hisopinion.

“There are no bylaws in [Illini Media Company] or anypolicies that say that I have to go to the editorial board before I publishanything,” Gorton said.

Cory did not return phone calls seekingcomment.

The Daily Illini isan independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois atUrbana-Champaign and is overseen by the Illini Media Company board of directors,which includes student and faculty members.

The interimeditors’ statement criticized Gorton’s decision, saying,“Something of this magnitude takes careful planning to handle in asensitive and tactful manner while still getting the pointacross.”

“Everybody in this newsroom agrees that the editor in chief is the person who has the final say of what goes in the newspaper, we all respect that,” Koch said. ”This has nothing to do with free speech, it has to do with the manner in which the two did this.”

Gorton and Prochaska decided last Wednesday toreprint six of the original cartoons accompanied with an editorial explainingwhy they were being run.

The cartoons and the editorial are nolonger accessible on the student newspaper’s Web site.

Thepublication of the cartoons in the The DailyIllini has incensed the Muslim community on campus and struck fear innewsroom staff, Gorton said.

“Monday night we had a meeting andI addressed the staff. People were telling me why didn’t I consider theirsafety, and what if the newsroom was fire bombed,” Gorton said. “Icouldn’t believe it. We’re Americans, we don’t do those kind ofthings here.”

Editors and staff atThe Daily Illini say the suspension wasa result of “the process” which Gorton and Prochaska went aboutpublishing the cartoons and not the actual publication of the cartoonsthemselves.

Gorton said that the staff is using the process as ashield and that the real reason for his suspension is the publication of thecartoons.

“They know that if they attacked me based upon thecartoons themselves, then they’d look bad on free speech rights,”Gorton said. “Of course they don’t like that the cartoons had to bepublished. Somebody’s head has to roll on this issue and it has to beme.”

Prochaska said that the newsroom staff is not being honestabout the reasons for the suspension and their reasons for going to thepublisher. The night that he and Gorton worked on the cartoons and theeditorial, the page was shown to the deputy editor, the night editor and bothmanaging editors throughout the night, he said.

Weissman and Kochwere managing editors at the time the cartoons were published.

“The night editor even assuredme, ‘If the publisher tries to yank it, I’ll make sure it goesthrough,’” Prochaska said. “They were scared of the fallout.Our staff started turning on us once they started seeing thereaction.”

Koch said he saw the cartoons before they were published and objected to them running.

“We needed to do much more packaging,” he said. “Knowing the newsroom attitude, it was futile to object.”

A task force has been assembled to investigate howthe cartoons were published in the first place and will make a recommendation tothe Illini Media Company board of directors about what should happen with Gorton andProchaska, according to the interim editors’ statement.

Gortonsaid that he believes the suspension will lead to his being fired and he hasretained a lawyer, Junaid Afeef, a founding member of the Muslim Bar Associationin Illinois and also one of the original members of the National Association ofMuslim Lawyers.

“They want a certain decision,” Gortonsaid of the staff’s investigation. “If there’s an organizationembroiled in a dispute, don’t you typically get outside unbiasedinvestigators to investigatethis?”

by Ricky Ribeiro SPLC staff writer