Freedom of the Press in Question

David Kerschner

When I was a little kid, I would call my sister names and, like the little wise-ass I used to be, laughed at her protests and claim “free speech.” However, if my sister were the University of Illinois, I would be in trouble. Recently the university publisher decided to suspend the editor-in-chief and the opinions page editor of its newspaper, The Daily Illini, for what they published: six of the cartoons depicting the profit Mohammad that have caused streaks of violence and killings around the globe. These cartoons are visual representations of the profit Mohammad. According to Muslim tradition, it is considered blasphemous to produce any such image. By printing these cartoons, the students violated Muslim tradition, but they violated no U.S. laws regarding libel or slander, and therefore have been wrongly removed from their positions. Some have argued for the university’s actions based on the assumption that the depictions show Mohammed to be a representative of terror, as one of the cartoons depicting him with a bomb wrapped in his turban. However, in the 1988 decision in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, the Supreme Court ruled that a false parody cannot be the cause of a damage suit. U.S. law therefore protects the rights of cartoonists, and in this case protects the rights of the editors of The Daily Illini to publish the cartoons. By printing the cartoons the editors intended to spark debate over the issue. They lost their jobs because of some people’s overreaction. Acton H. Gorton, one of the suspended editors, told The New York Times that the Illinois he “did this to raise a healthy dialogue about an important issue that is in the news and so that people would learn more about Islam. Now, I’m basically fired.” This attempt to encourage debate and education – two things that we as Americans often take for granted – turned into an attack on the civil liberties of The Daily Illini’s editorial staff. Whether or not they should have published the offensive cartoons is not the issue; the issue is that they should be allowed to do so. The editors knew that they would be offending certain people in publishing the cartoons (in journalism, these things happen). The perks of the first amendment allow them to legally publish whatever they please.By suspending these students, the publishers of the newspaper of the University of Illinois have taken our enlightened culture backwards. This action sends a message to writers around the country that they may not publish what they want and that freedom of speech and the freedom to print what they feel is printworthy are no longer sacred concepts in America. We have reached a critical point in American history. We must decide whether religion will overpower the freedom that this country was founded upon. America is, or at least would like to think it is, not run by religious fanatics. The University of Illinois, however, has allowed religion to affect its policies, and has now set a precedent that religious customs are more important than American ideals. If the newspaper staff at Illinois had a problem with the decisions of the editors then they could have used what power they had to remove them. Similarly, if the students had a problem with the publication, they could have boycotted or written letters to the editor the American way. Just as writers and cartoonists have the right to print what they feel is worthy of space in a paper, everyone has the right not to buy the paper, peacefully convince others to do the same, start their own publication or write letters to existing ones. The University of Illinois has has underminded journalistic integrity by disallowing the freedom of press to prosper on its campus. If there had been enough of a negative outcry from the student body, the paper’s staff could have taken care of the issue. The publishers did not allow it to come to this, taking matters into their own hands and compromising the freedom of speech in this country. The cartoons should have sparked a debate through letters to the editor, as did occur, and should have continued until the issue was dead. What happened instead was the loss of two jobs by tbecause two people did what our constitution gives them the right to do.