*UPDATED* Student editor fired after publishing Muhammad cartoons
***Updated March 28***
ILLINOIS -- The editor in chief of the University of Illinois' student newspaper was fired last week following his suspension after reprinting six cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.
The board of directors of the Illini Media Co., which owns and publishes The Daily Illini, found that Editor in Chief Acton Gorton "violated
Daily Illini policies about thoughtful discussion of and preparation for the publication of inflammatory material,'' according to a statement released by the board.
The cartoons, which were originally published in Denmark's Jylland-Posten newspaper, have sparked riots in countries around the world by Muslims who were offended by the depictions. Representations of Muhammad are widely discouraged in Islam for fear that they could lead to idolatry.
But Gorton disputes that he violated the ''inflammatory material'' policy.
''The policy is against advertising,'' Gorton said. ''It's to prevent outside advertisers from publishing inflammatory material in the paper, not from content within the paper.''
Interim Editor in Chief Jason Koch said the policy covered editorial content as well as advertising and gives some control to the editorial board.
''The editorial board should be consulted in its advisory role before such material is published,'' reads the policy, according to Koch.
Koch would not provide the Student Press Law Center with a copy of the policy in question, citing company policy on releasing information dealing with personnel issues.
The inflammatory material policy is a part of a newsroom handbook that he himself wrote, Gorton said. In January, Gorton gave a draft version of the handbook to Melinda Miller, the paper's editorial adviser, asking her to look over it and check for any errors, he said.
''She held onto it, never did anything with it,'' Gorton said. ''As soon I published the cartoons, I guess she got around to it.''
Koch said Gorton's account of the events is ''inaccurate.''
''The policy that Acton says he 'wrote' was actually written several years ago,'' Koch said. ''Acton was supposed to update the policy book during winter break and have a copy of the new manual for everyone at our Jan. 10 workshop. He didn't have it ready and no one has seen an updated manual.''
Mary Cory, the paper's publisher, suspended opion editor Chuck Prochaska and Gorton Feb. 13 at the request of the newspaper staff, which alleged that the two did not run the cartoons with enough input from the editorial board. A task force made up of senior members of the paper was assembled at that time to investigate how the cartoons were published in the first place and to make a recommendation to the Illini Media Company board of directors about what should happen with the suspended editors.
Gorton said that he believes the taskforce -- which was made up of senior members of the paper -- was biased and its members wanted him fired from the beginning.
Koch said task force members went into the investigation with an ''open mind.''
''Nobody at the newspaper wanted to see anything come to this,'' he said.
Cory did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.
Gorton and his lawyer, Junaid Afeef, met with the company's board of directors last Monday where he was allowed 30 minutes to defend himself.
The meeting felt awkward and it did not feel like board members were being receptive to what he was saying, Gorton said.
Following the meeting, the board, which is composed of four students and four faculty members, unanimously decided to fire Gorton. The two interim editors in chief decided to reinstate Prochaska, who was also suspended for his part in publishing the cartoons, but he turned down the offer for personal reasons, according to the statement.
''After considering the report filed by the student task force, delivered Tuesday, Feb. 28, and additionally considering the statement provided by Acton at a hearing yesterday, the board came to the conclusion that several violations of company policy occurred in regard to the cartoons published in the Feb. 9 edition of
The Daily Illini,'' said Adam Jung, vice president of the board, in an article by The Daily Illini.
Illini Media would not provide a copy of the bylaws or a copy of the student task force's report because ''it's company policy not to release anything dealing with personnel issues,'' Koch said.
Gorton said he has not seen the bylaws either.
Gorton and Prochaska have both said that they did not hide the cartoons or their intentions and sought input from several staff members who were in the office when the piece was being put together.
Gorton is considering his legal options and met with his lawyer yesterday, he said.
But the whole incident has left Gorton with a sour taste of corporate-run journalism.
''It seems like corporations want more safe journalism, because they don't want to hurt their numbers,'' Gorton said.
Illinois, news, The Daily Illini, University of Illinois
- Read a copy of the statement released by the Illini Media Co.'s board of directors last week (requires Adobe Acrobat)
- Student editors suspended after publishing Muhammad cartoons News Flash, 2/16/2006
- Student editors: Mainstream media wrong for not publishing Muhammad cartoons News Flash, 2/13/2006
- Read a statement issued last month by The Daily Illini's interim editors (Requires Adobe Acrobat)
- Read a letter sent to the Student Press Law Center last month by The Daily Illini's interim editors (Requires Adobe Acrobat)