NORTH CAROLINA — Atunnel celebrating freedom of expression is at the center of a controversy overfreedom of the press at North Carolina State University.
On Friday, copies of the Brick— a student-run publication designed for incoming freshmen at NCSU — werepulled from the bags that are distributed to participants in the school’s NewStudent Orientation program, held throughout July.
The removal was prompted by the discovery of a racialepithet in a photograph on one of the inside pages of thepublication.
The photo was taken inside the school’s storied FreeExpression Tunnel, an on-campus site of sanctioned graffiti in which any memberof the public is able to paint messages.
After a series of meetings Friday involving school officialsand NCSU student journalists, NSO staff members decided that the Brick — which combines elements of ayearbook, a guidebook and a newspaper — would be removed from the bags for theMonday and Tuesday sessions for incoming students.
Tuesday morning, the Brickstaff and Gabe Wical, director of NSO, reached an agreement in which theuniversity will resume distribution of the bags with the publication intact,under the condition that a mailing label-sized sticker is placed in each copyto cover up the part of the photo in question.
The sticker will include a link to a studentgovernment-sponsored event at the start of the 2011-12 academic year, duringwhich students will join in painting the Free Expression Tunnel as a display ofsolidarity.
Chandler Thompson, a Brickstaff member and student body president at NCSU, said she hopes thedistribution will pick up again Wednesday.
Wical did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Though both sides came to a resolution relatively quickly,student journalists are still upset over what they see as a freedom of speechissue.
“Whether I agree with it or not, I defend students’ right tofree speech in the tunnel,” said Susannah Brinkley, who graduated in May andserved as editor of the Brick overthe past few weeks. “I believe that the photo is an accurate representation ofthe tunnel on any given day.”
Evelyn Reiman, who oversees both student government andstudent media as associate vice chancellor in the division of student affairs,said the copies of the Brick wereinitially pulled because they did not fall in line with the larger universitygoal of increasing tolerance.
“The end goal [of the book] was to build campus unity, andthe photo became something that broke down campus unity,” she said. “I thinkthey (NSO) had the right to make the decision they did, since it was includedin their materials.”
Though Brinkley was not initially in favor of a solutionthat would have covered up part of the photo, she said it “would have been ashame if students didn’t get to experience the book for what it was.”
Brinkley explained that neither she nor any of the more thanten people who previewed the Brick priorto publication noticed the reference in the photo.
It wasn’t until Friday morning that anybody affiliated withNCSU student media was made aware that the photo contained an offensive phrase.Bradley Wilson, coordinator for student media advising at the university andadviser to the Brick, received aforwarded email from theparents ofan incoming freshman, expressing concerns over the editorial decision.
“[Our son] feels strongly, and wewholeheartedly agree, that the photograph selected to represent the FreeExpression Tunnel completely contradicts the university’s position ofacceptance and tolerance,” the parents wrote in the email. “Please note theword nigger in the photo of the Free Expression Tunnel. We cannotimagine, yet sincerely hope that this was a gross oversight/completeincompetence.”
Brinkley said about 2,000 books had been distributed toincoming freshmen in the NSO bags prior to the parents’ email, with nobodymentioning anything about the image until a few days ago.
She added that 6,500 total copies of the 128-page Brick were printed for the incomingclass. Though the publication would not have been included in the remaining NSObags if the student journalists had refused to compromise, Brinkley explainedthat her staff was never prevented from handing out the book on its own time.
While Brinkley called the publication of the photo “unfortunate,”she feels there is no basis for her to issue a public apology.
Wilson, who wrote back to the parents on Friday, agreed.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked through thattunnel and seen the n-word written,” he said. “I don’t like seeing it, butthat’s a part of life in the Free Expression Tunnel.”
Brinkley added that various parties suggested cropping thephoto or ripping out an entire page from the Brick — both of which were solutions she did not support.
She said while Tuesday’s decision was “not my favoriteoutcome in the world, it was a solution that I think will appease everybodyenough … Still, I do feel a bit censored because we couldn’t distribute asoriginally planned for a few days.”
Reiman called the final decision “a very thoughtful solutionto a very difficult problem that came to our attention suddenly.”
In hindsight, however, the problem may have been a long timecoming.
Unbeknownst to the student journalists until the end of lastweek, the same photo ran in a November 2010 edition of the Technician,NCSU’s student newspaper. The surprise, though, was that the photo had beenaltered in such a way as to blur out the offensive reference.
“To me, any alteration of an image is completelyunacceptable,” Wilson said, adding that he is investigating what he called “aclear violation of our code of ethics.”
Looking back, the photo does not mark the first time theFree Expression Tunnel has been at the center of a controversy concerning thelimits of student speech.
Created in the 1960s as an outlet for students to speaktheir minds, the tunnel became center-stage in November 2008, when threateningstatements targeted at then President-elect Barack Obama surfaced on the walls.
Secret Service agents came to campus to investigate thestatements.
Wilson said he has been disappointed that past controversieslike this have not spurred more collective university action. Looking to thefuture, he hopes the recent Brick disputemay prompt change.
“Instead of dealing with the issue of racism, we’ve justcovered it up,” he said. “Covering it up isn’t going to solve anything. Peoplewant to have a dialogue about the conflict between free expression and tolerance,and that’s something we should be promoting.”