***Updated March 28***
ILLINOIS –The editor in chief of the University of Illinois’ student newspaper wasfired last week following his suspension after reprinting six cartoons depictingthe prophet Muhammad.
The board of directors of the Illini MediaCo., which owns and publishes The DailyIllini, found that Editor in ChiefActon Gorton “violated
Daily Illinipolicies about thoughtful discussion ofand preparation for the publication of inflammatory material,” accordingto a statement released by the board.
The cartoons, whichwere originally published in Denmark’sJylland-Posten newspaper, have sparkedriots in countries around the world by Muslims who were offended by thedepictions. Representations of Muhammad are widely discouraged in Islam for fearthat they could lead to idolatry.
But Gorton disputes that heviolated the ”inflammatory material” policy.
”Thepolicy is against advertising,” Gorton said. ”It’s to preventoutside advertisers from publishing inflammatory material in the paper, not fromcontent within the paper.”
Interim Editor in Chief Jason Koch said the policy covered editorial content as well as advertising and gives some control to the editorial board.
”The editorial board should be consulted in its advisory role before such material is published,” reads the policy, according to Koch.
Koch would not provide the Student Press Law Center with a copy of the policy in question, citing company policy on releasing information dealing with personnel issues.
The inflammatory material policy is a part of a newsroom handbook that he himself wrote, Gorton said. In January, Gorton gave a draft version of the handbook to Melinda Miller, the paper’s editorial adviser, asking her to look over it and check for any errors, he said.
”She held onto it, never didanything with it,” Gorton said. ”As soon I published the cartoons, Iguess she got around to it.”
Koch said Gorton’s account of the events is ”inaccurate.”
”The policy that Acton says he ‘wrote’ was actually written several years ago,” Koch said. ”Acton was supposed to update the policy book during winter break and have a copy of the new manual for everyone at our Jan. 10 workshop. He didn’t have it ready and no one has seen an updated manual.”
Mary Cory, the paper’s publisher, suspended opion editor Chuck Prochaska and Gorton Feb. 13 at therequest of the newspaper staff, which alleged that the two did not run thecartoons with enough input from the editorial board. A task force made up ofsenior members of the paper was assembled at that time to investigate how thecartoons were published in the first place and to make a recommendation to theIllini Media Company board of directors about what should happen with thesuspended editors.
Gorton said that he believes the taskforce — which was made up of senior members of the paper — was biased and its members wanted him fired from the beginning.
Koch said task force members went into the investigation with an ”open mind.”
”Nobody at the newspaper wanted to see anything come to this,” he said.
Cory did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.
Gorton and his lawyer, Junaid Afeef, met with thecompany’s board of directors last Monday where he was allowed 30 minutesto defend himself.
The meeting felt awkward and it did not feel likeboard members were being receptive to what he was saying, Gortonsaid.
Following the meeting, the board, which is composed of fourstudents and four faculty members, unanimously decided to fire Gorton. The twointerim editors in chief decided to reinstate Prochaska,who was also suspended for his part in publishing the cartoons, but he turneddown the offer for personal reasons, according to thestatement.
”After considering the report filed by the studenttask force, delivered Tuesday, Feb. 28, and additionally considering thestatement provided by Acton at a hearing yesterday, the board came to theconclusion that several violations of company policy occurred in regard to thecartoons published in the Feb. 9 edition of
The Daily Illini,” said AdamJung, vice president of the board, in an article byThe Daily Illini.
Illini Media would not provide a copy of the bylaws or a copy of the student task force’s report because ”it’s company policy not to release anything dealing with personnel issues,” Koch said.
Gorton said he has not seen the bylaws either.
Gorton and Prochaska have both said that they did not hidethe cartoons or their intentions and sought input from several staff members whowere in the office when the piece was being put together.
Gorton is considering his legal options and met with his lawyer yesterday, hesaid.
But the whole incident has left Gorton with a sour taste of corporate-run journalism.
”It seems like corporations want more safe journalism, because they don’t want to hurt their numbers,” Gorton said.