Fight over free press at Univ. of Rhode Island puts a lot on the line

Monday, December 14, 1998



More than two decades ago, the student newspaper on the campus of the
University of Rhode Island suffered an identity crisis and wound up changing
its name from The Beacon to The Good 5 Cent Cigar. Now the
newspaper is immersed in a much different crisis, and a lot more than its
name is on the line.


It all started when managing editor Patrick Luce pulled from a drawer a
cartoon originally published in the San Antonio Express-News in
September 1997. Because of its strong anti-racism message, Luce decided to publish the cartoon in the Dec. 2 issue of The Good 5 Cent Cigar.


To Luce’s’ dismay, some students didn’t interpret the cartoon as
anti-racism; in fact, they called
the cartoon racist and The Good 5 Cent Cigar and its staff
insensitive for publishing it.


Led by a group called the Brothers United for Action, 200 students mounted a
protest. The BUA demanded the resignation of the paper’s top three editors,
termination of advertising support for the paper, freezing of student
government funds for publishing the paper, and the creation of a new student
newspaper.


The Student Senate placed a temporary freeze on the student newspaper’s
budget, effectively snuffing out the Cigar.


The controversy quickly swept through the campus and spilled outside; both
the local and national media gave it prominent play.


In many ways, what happened on the URI campus has been happening on dozens
of university campuses across the nation. Despite speech codes,
multicultural centers, diversity programs, curriculum changes and constant
calls for according equal opportunity and treatment for all students, racism
and discrimination remain at our institutions of higher learning.


Students who have been the target of racism and discrimination are desperate for ways to raise their voices on campus. Some groups have found that attacking the student press is an effective way to
call attention to their causes. Thus, on dozens of campuses, student
newspapers have been stolen and burned and student journalists vilified for
insensitivity.


Unfortunately, trashing and bashing the student newspaper too often becomes the focal
point of the whole exercise and the original goal of calling attention to
racism and discrimination gets lost in the hubbub.


The URI controversy was distinct from similar events on other campuses in a number of ways.


Journalism professor Linda Levin spoke up in firm defense of the student
newspaper and journalists, reminding the whole student body of the First
Amendment issues at stake. She even put up her own money to help publish
the paper after the Student Senate froze its funds. In most such instances,
faculty members — most of whom hold tenure so they can hold views, even
unpopular ones — are eerily silent.


The Rhode Island Press Association also offered financial help to the
newspaper and organized a First Amendment forum on campus to remind students
and faculty that a free press is vital to a democracy and to an
institution of higher learning. Often in such situations, the professional
journalists seldom come to the aid of their student counterparts.


The editors and the staff of The Good 5 Cent Cigar calmly,
professionally and resolutely stood their ground and put some faculty
members and administrators to shame with their understanding of the First
Amendment principles involved. Too often, young journalists caught in such a
firefight retreat into silence and frustration or overly exuberant
retractions.


One of the more positive elements of the controversy, however, was a
two-hour-plus First Amendment forum involving an estimated 600 students and
faculty on Dec. 9, organized by the press association and some university
officials.


It was an emotionally charged setting, and many of those who had crowded
into the auditorium of the Chafee Social Science Center agreed with Student
Senator Anna Zielinski, who had said earlier: “Are we going to hide behind
this freedom-of-speech crap?”


But to their credit, the students who came to the microphone to voice their
opinions were impressive in both their passion and their civility. By the
end of the forum, there clearly was a deeper respect for free-speech and
free-press principles and a desire to seek more positive solutions, fueled
in great measure by a remarks from Rosa Maria Pegueros, who recalled press
censorship in Guatemala.


That evening, the Student Senate met and voted to restore the newspaper’s
funding.


On Dec. 11, the annual election of editors for The Good 5 Cent Cigar
was held, with all positions filled from the Cigar‘s staff. Patrick
Luce had planned long before the controversy to leave his post as managing
editor. He’ll be going to work full-time at a local newspaper, whose editor
offered the job to him during a radio talk show the week before.


Hopefully, the semester break will present a cooling-off period for other
demands to fade.


What should not fade is the recognition that many school officials and
faculty members failed the students by not speaking out forcefully for the
First Amendment issues at stake.


In turn, many students will have failed themselves and their commitment to
open and fair discourse if they don’t take to heart some of the lessons
raised by this controversy.


It is when speech is most indefensible that freedom of speech is most in
need of defending.


When championing a cause, individuals and groups must guard against letting
their convictions stray into self-righteousness or harden into moral
certainty, both of which stand in the way of beneficial discourse and
lasting solutions.


The First Amendment doesn’t protect the right to speak or publish only; just
as important, it protects the right to read, to hear and to see. When a few
attempt to silence a voice or shut down a newspaper, no matter how noble or
well-intentioned the motives, they deny everyone else the right to make up
their own minds.


Free speech can be disruptive, inefficient, inconvenient and at times
infuriating. But in the long run it is liberating, calming and
empowering.


And whether one thinks of it as “this freedom-of-speech-crap” or “embracing
First Amendment rights and values,” there is nothing terribly abstract or
legalistic about this whole situation.


It is as simple as this: The press may belong to the Cigar staff, but
freedom of the press belongs to everyone.


Paul Masters can be reached at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.