Student newspaper’s use of n-word sparks backlash

Friday, September 23, 2005

Though his newspaper prints thousands of words each day, student editor Mike Gimignani is facing a backlash over just one.

Controversy erupted after the University of Florida-Gainesville’s student-run newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, published a cartoon criticizing rapper Kayne West’s remarks about how the Bush administration dealt with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

In a live, televised fundraiser aired Sept. 2 on NBC, West broke from his scripted appearance with comedian Mike Myers, bluntly stating, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

The Alligator cartoon depicted West giving a playing card with the words “The Race Card” to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s cartoon response reads, “Nigga Please!”

Since running the cartoon on Sept. 13, the newspaper, its editor in chief and its cartoonist have been denounced by a number of people for using the word “nigga,” including the university president, student groups, and callers to a radio-talk show on which Gimignani was a guest. And the University of Florida student government has pulled all its ads from the paper.

The cartoon raised sensitive racial issues, such as who can use the n-word and when. Both Gimignani and the cartoonist, Andy Marlette, have been told that it was not their place as white men to run a cartoon with the word.

“I asked someone if Andy and I weren’t white, and had said all the same things in the cartoon, would it have made a difference? He said yes, and I don’t agree with that,” Gimignani said.

“It’s not something we condone using. We don’t think that white people, or anyone for that matter, should go off spouting that kind of word,” said Gimignani. “But it was useful in this context to juxtapose Condi Rice to West by putting his words in her mouth. We know he uses the word.”

In a letter to the editor published on Sept. 14, Jeremy Watson, Black Student Union treasurer, and Betty Stewart-Dowdell, BSU adviser, wrote, “Though likely intended as a joke, we strongly feel that no ethnic minority, black or not, would enjoy or laugh at the public display of such negative words that have been used to slander and defame them. The fact that the word was even used so jokingly only highlights the ignorance that still exists in the world and the blatant lack of knowledge of other people and other cultures.”

Gimignani said he hoped the debate would prompt positive change over the word’s use. “If West comes on campus and says the word, then obviously we haven’t learned anything,” said Gimignani.

West is scheduled to perform at the University of Florida next month.

Addressing the condemnation of the cartoon in her Alligator column, opinions editor Emily Yehle said she had made the decision to run the cartoon after it was presented by Marlette. The newspaper’s editorial board and Gimignani gave the cartoon final approval.

“Not all of us on the board agreed with the decision to run the cartoon,” said Gimignani, “but we are supposed to be the ones [defending] all kinds of speech.”

Marlette, nephew of cartoonist Doug Marlette, “has a talent for saying the things other people don’t want to say,” Gimignani said.

Although the editorial board voted to stand behind its decision to publish the cartoon and has not issued an apology, Gimignani said he regretted any pain it caused.

“People were offended and hurt by this, but what we want to get across is that it wasn’t intended to hurt anyone,” said Gimignani.

The backlash has not been limited to verbal criticisms. At a Student Senate meeting on Sept. 20, Student Body President Joe Goldberg issued an executive order withdrawing all student government-funded advertisements from the paper.

“The newspaper has a right to print what they want, and we have the right to spend our money where we want,” said Goldberg. “The Student Senate decided to pull advertisements because we are not comfortable with this word being used on our campus.”

Formerly a university-funded paper, the Independent Florida Alligator separated itself from the university in 1973 and has since run on profits made from advertisements.

University faculty and administrators have also chastised the paper. University president Bernie Machen published a statement in the paper criticizing it for racial insensitivity.

“Such depictions reinforce hurtful and damaging stereotypes. They poison the ongoing struggle to overcome the racial barriers that divide our country, and give comfort to bigots who seek affirmation for their racism,” Machen wrote.

Joe Hice, associate vice president for university relations, said the university administration was unhappy with the newspaper’s decision to run the cartoon.

“We really disapprove of the cartoon and consider it inappropriate,” Hice told the First Amendment Center Online. “We have not pulled our ads, but we will continue to monitor the actions of the newspaper.”

He added, “We think the newspaper should offer an apology, but we still respect their right of freedom of press.”

The editor said the controversy has also taken a personal toll on him. “Does it have an effect? Of course. I’ve gotten death threats,” Gimignani said. “Someone called me on Saturday (Sept. 17) and told me they knew where I would be and that they were coming to get me.”

Yet Gimignani stands behind the newspaper’s action, and plans to remain in his position as editor. “I still want to do this and I am not going to resign … . Unless the newspaper’s independent board of directors decides that I’m not appropriate, which is possible, I am going to stay.”

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion and has a right to say it,” said Gimignani.