For some journalists, diversity training might be a requirement

College officials want to make 'diversity training' compulsory after charges of insensitivity

Having to deal with an angry or offended reader is not uncommon for college publications editors. 

Some student publications, however, are being pressured by school administrators and offended readers to put their staffs through diversity training in an attempt to avoid covering sensitive issues the wrong way.

At Southwest Missouri State University, a group of minority students lashed out against editors of The Standard, a student newspaper on campus, because of an editorial cartoon that appeared in the newspaper that they found to be "offensive."

The cartoon, which was published a week before Thanksgiving, depicted two American Indians in traditional headdress and one Pilgrim gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. One of the Pilgrims, speaking to another said, “Gladys, the Indians are here and it looks like they brought corn again.” 

Members of the American Indian student group filed a complaint with the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity, which is responsible for investigating violations of the school’s anti-discriminatory policy. The university policy states that no university office or university-sponsored activity can discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, disability or veteran status.

The students called for the firing of the adviser and editor, as well as mandatory diversity training for the entire newspaper staff.

While the university has not enforced any punishment on the newspaper staff because of the incident, it requested that the newspaper's editor and adviser meet with students about the incident. The editor of the newspaper eventually went through mediation with the group -- but a resolution was not reached. 

"When I first ran it, I wondered about it,” said Mandy Phillips, editor of the student newspaper. “But it was a Thanksgiving cartoon that dealt with modern Thanksgiving issues and it ran in the issue right before Thanksgiving break.”

Those opposed to the cartoon say it was discriminatory because the American Indians were portrayed in stereotypical feathered headdress and face paint. 

“I can’t apologize for everything that goes across the editorial page -- it’s an editorial cartoon,” Phillips said. “If there had been some level of stereotyping or racism that I had overlooked, I would have apologized.”

Phillips gave the American Indian student group space in the newspaper to write a response to the cartoon and has published every letter to the editor on the subject. She said running the cartoon was “not unethical and has been handled exceptionally well” by the newspaper staff.

Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said school administrators are violating students' rights if they force them to go through diversity training. He said it is "a violation of their right to cover issues the way they please."

"The university should feel free to offer advice to newspapers, but when it comes to any program that would encourage [student journalists] not to cover topics on sensitive issues, or cover them in a particular way, that is infringing on the freedom of the student press," Lukianoff said.

By forcing student journalists into a situation where the feel they need to apologize, school administrators are trying to say "you will be held accountable for anything that any student ever finds objectionable, even if in some cases the students may be overreacting," Lukianoff said. 

"Almost any stance that a [newspaper] can take, any editorial it could take, an [opinion piece] that a student writes, is going to offend somebody," Lukianoff said. "Freedom of speech, at moments, is at its best ... when it does displease some people."

Editors at a student newspaper at the University of Hawaii have began screening cartoons more closely after it received objections to a cartoon it had printed in the newspaper.

The Afro American Lawyers Association of Hawaii was offended by a cartoon that was printed in the Ka Leo O Hawaii, a student newspaper at the university, in February that referred to the NAACP as the "National Alliance of Assailants of Colored People," according to the Honolulu Advertiser.

The newspaper's board of publications approved three recommendations that would mandate training for the board and its program heads; specific training for all cartoonists before their work is published; and oversight of all cartoons by two editors before publication, the newspaper reported.

Since the incident, a newspaper employee said the newspaper's editor in chief has been reviewing each cartoon before it is printed."Setting up a mandatory 'educational program' for the newspaper ... is a form of punishment," Lukianoff said. "In order to engage in journalism, students should not be required to go to any form of indoctrination or any forum of ideological training."

Fall 2004, Hawaii, Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, reports, Southwest Missouri State University, The Standard, University of Hawaii