On April 3, The George Street Observer, the College of Charleston’s student newspaper, published an April Fool’s edition called the George Street Disturber. The mock paper satirized actress Halle Berry’s Oscar acceptance speech; linked a local black street person to Osama bid Laden; and reported that the NAACP would be expanding its economic boycott in South Carolina to include white bed sheets, which, according to the newspaper, the Ku Klux Klan used to spread their hatred.
A day after the newspaper was published, a college administrator sent out an e-mail to faculty and staff that said the issue detracted from the intellectual climate of the college. Over the next several days and weeks, faculty and staff responded by condemning the newspaper. Some said it was necessary for faculty to review all stories to protect the newspaper from itself. Others thought that the newspaper should be discontinued to protect it from the rest of us. In a news conference, which was covered by all three local television stations, the black student union denounced the Disturber as racist.
Given the dismal state of free speech on college campuses, one would have expected the administration to punish the newspaper and its editor. But reason prevailed. Jeri Cabot, the college’s dean of students, cited the First Amendment and said the college would not take disciplinary action.
In these politically correct days, it is fashionable for those who are offended to express their indignation in the name of offended people everywhere, skin alive those who utter contrary opinions, force them to apologize, and then have them banished to the Tower of Babel.
At Colorado College in Colorado Springs, the campus newspaper, The Catalyst, published an April Fool’s issue that many students claimed had racist material. The editor and managing editor were forced to resign – but not before they had to apologize. At Furman University in Greenville, S.C., the vice president for student services said the student newspaper’s April Fool’s issue went too far by using profanity, publishing a picture of bare buttocks, and making jokes about the school’s president. “We are looking at what action to take,” The Associated Press quoted him as saying.
In late January, the Texas A&M student newspaper, The Battalion, was forced to apologize for publishing a cartoon that caricatured a black mother and her son. The cartoon was described as “blatantly racist” by black students on campus. During a demonstration, the school’s president, Ray Bowen, told the crowd that he was proud of them for teaching him “a lesson about the way to fight prejudice.”
In return, Bowen taught the campus the lesson that censorship is needed to protect students from their opinions. Other college presidents and administrators, too, have felt the need to condemn and even punish those who express racist, sexist or other unpopular ideas. Whether it is the weight of their office or the vehemence of their protests, administrators teach students that they should express only acceptable ideas or face the consequences.
This doesn’t cure prejudice; it forces it deeper inside us. It deprives us from discussing the issues that divide us. And if we can’t do this on college campuses, then where? Satire is the most extreme form of expression that society tolerates. Its point is to make us feel uncomfortable. And to a certain extent, it is irrelevant whether it’s good satire or not. Or whether it’s funny or not.
The George Street Observer staff should’ve known better, I hear from my colleagues or read in their e-mails. I agree. While I found much of the April Fool’s edition in bad taste, I am far more offended by those who think we need to exercise the insidious and unconstitutional practice of prior restraint to improve the intellectual climate on campus.
Administrators who censor students for expressing their ideas also should know better. This goes for faculty, staff and students who believe they are the final arbiters on humor, taste, and satire. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in Cohen v. California: “One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.”
If we want to teach student journalists a lesson, perhaps it is this: Free speech doesn’t guarantee provocative commentary, but without free speech, provocative commentary is impossible. You don’t end racism or tastelessness by censoring them.
Chris Lamb, an associate professor of Media Studies at the College of Charleston, was the faculty adviser of the George Street Observer from 1997-2001. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.