Student Senate restores campus newspaper’s financing

Thursday, December 10, 1998

The University of Rhode Island student Senate decided yesterday to unfreeze the budget of the campus newspaper but voted to ask the staff to apologize to students and faculty who were offended by the publication of a racially sensitive cartoon.

The cartoon, published in The Good 5 Cent Cigar last week, shows a white University of Texas Law School professor greeting a black man entering his classroom. “If you're the janitor, please wait until after class to empty the trash,” the professor says. “If you're one of our minority students, welcome!”

A group calling itself Brothers United for Action assembled more than 200 students last week to protest, some demanding an apology from the newspaper while others asked the university to close it down.

In response, Denis Guay, finance director for the student Senate, froze the newspaper's funding until the full Senate could debate the issue. The Senate voted Sunday to continue withholding money from the newspaper. Press groups rallied behind the newspaper, offering it donations so it could continue publishing.

Although the paper's editors have refused to apologize, they have published two statements saying the cartoon expressed disgust with attacks on affirmative action in Texas. The editors wrote that they regretted “any misinterpretation the campus may have gotten from this cartoon.”

The issue so divided the campus that the Rhode Island Press Association sponsored a First Amendment forum yesterday in South Kingstown to allow free-press advocates and others to discuss the backlash against the newspaper.

Panelist Marc Hardge, a member of Brothers United for Action, said the cartoon incident further highlighted “an effort to squeeze people of color from higher education.”

But Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for The Freedom Forum, told the audience of more than 500 students and faculty members that the framers of the Constitution intended the First Amendment to protect unpopular speech. He said the First Amendment protects the radical, the revolutionary and even the rascal.

“Sometimes some speech is hard to defend, but it is precisely when speech is most indefensible that freedom of speech is most in need of defending,” McMasters said.

Panelist Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said minority groups have the most to fear from censorship. He noted that in many of the key student press cases, officials censored African Americans expressing views in support of racial equality.

“I'm a little uncertain about where it's going to go from here,” Goodman said after the forum. “It seemed that most people understood the danger of allowing censorship of the newspaper based on unpopular content.”

But Goodman said he thinks the audience remained divided over the cartoon with many “still demanding an apology and the newspaper feeling it had given as much as an apology as was appropriate to give.”

In a meeting held after the forum, the student Senate decided to restore the newspaper's funding, saying it based its decision on The Cigar staff's assurance that it would repay the Senate some $41,000 in loans and debts. It approved a financial arrangement allowing the newspaper to pay the debt in installments through 2002.

But the Senate also voted 23 to 15 to ask The Cigar staff to apologize to the students and faculty who were offended by the cartoon. The Senate has no power to enforce the resolution, but it could freeze funds again if the paper misses payments.

Editors of The Cigar couldn't be reached for comment.

But an adviser to Brothers United for Action said the group now would seek to impeach the newspaper's editors under college guidelines.

In an interview with The Providence Journal, graduate student Gerald Williams said: “Now is the time to consider the demise of The Good 5 Cent Cigar.”