On Dec. 1 of last year, the University of Washington’s Daily doubled the usual size of its Monday edition, but none of the extra column inches included staff-member bylines. Instead, seven full pages were dedicated to reader letters in response to a column printed the prior week.
The article and accompanying graphic that drew such widespread attention was one side of a point-counterpoint opinion package addressing gay marriage in the wake of California voters’ approval of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8. UW senior John Fay authored the anti-gay marriage position, arguing that homosexuality is an emotional tendency “that needs to be dealt with, not denied,” and that “°nce you’ve legalized gay marriage, why not polygamy, incest, bestiality or any other form of union?” Printed alongside Fay’s column was a silhouette of a man and a sheep, presumably illustrating Fay’s argument that legalizing gay marriage could lead to bestiality. Along with the pro-gay marriage piece, written by another student columnist, was a similar silhouette of two women holding hands.
The explosive public reaction to the illustration exemplifies how sensitive issues can touch a nerve, and how publications can respond to prevent a controversy from causing lasting harm.
“The university president, student life vice-provost, editor and myself received several phone calls and e-mails from local and long-distant readers of the piece,” Kristin Millis, UW director of student publications, said in an e-mail. “There were a few threats … Personal addresses were published encouraging those who were outraged by the opinion piece to inflict bodily harm on the author and our editors.”
Tensions culminated at an on-campus rally organized by members of a group formed on Facebook called “Students for a Hate Free Daily,” which tallied upwards of 1,000 members just days after the controversial article ran.
Over 200 students protested against the newspaper’s editorial decision. Photo courtesy of John McLellan.
While rally leaders maintained they wanted to address students hurt by the column, not censor the paper, other UW students were unwilling to allay blame for the Daily. The UW Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS), for example, called for either a printed apology from the Editorial Board or the resignation of Editor-in-Chief Sarah Jeglum and opinion editor Natalie Sikavi.
A week after the controversial column was published, UW President Mark Emmert took out a half-page ad in the Daily, where he extolled the university’s commitment to tolerance, diversity and free expression on campus.
“The response to the column in The Daily demonstrates to me that the free exchange of ideas at our University is alive and well and doing what it is supposed to do,” Emmert wrote.
Following the GPSS resolution calling for her resignation, Jeglum spoke in front of an open forum organized by the Associated Students of the University of Washington. She said she would not apologize and she would not resign. While she admitted the graphic choice was ill-advised, Jeglum said she stood by her decision to run Fay’s column as one side of a dialogue about an issue of clear importance to the UW community ‘ an importance evidenced by the campus’ colossal response.
Apologizing for the column would amount to censorship of the views of a segment of the campus community, she said.
“People have called it hate speech, and I just don’t think it is,” she said. “If I could do it again, I would run the article but with a different illustration or none at all. I talked to the illustrator and he said he chose to portray the furthest out argument possible, the slippery slope argument. … I’ve talked to him since then and he said that it wasn’t the right place for editorializing.”
According to Mike Hiestand, Student Press Law Center attorney, being transparent about decisions can be “what keeps controversies from becoming avalanches.”
The illustration caused students to protest.
In describing the Daily’s handling of the recent publishing controversy, Millis said she was particularly proud of the staff for its concurrent allegiance to both integrity and accountability. Editors were unyielding in their paper’s defense, she said, but were also willing to explain their decision to protestors and dissenters.
“First of all, be accessible,” Jeglum said when asked how she would advise other student journalists in handling controversial publication decisions.
Jeglum not only gave the go-ahead to print several additional pages of reader letters in the Daily, but also wrote an explanatory editorial in the paper’s opinion pages and spoke at student forums organized in response to Fay’s column.
Jeglum also advises fellow student editors ‘ a lesson she said has been most formative in her leadership following the controversy ‘ to do everything possible to “educate yourself and your staff.”
The staff of the Daily has, enlisted the help of experts on LGBT issues to provide training in ways to approach the topic with sensitivity. And according to Jeglum, this type of training will be an ongoing part of staff orientation.
“We have to educate ourselves as best we can, and then continue with the mindset that we’re never going to know everything,” she said. “I think what worried me the most about the controversy and the threats … was that the staff here would become afraid to cover or be a forum for gay rights issues, whether in news coverage or the opinion section. I want us to feel like we can broach these controversial topics on campus without being afraid.”
According to Hiestand, college newspaper staffs would be wise to establish publishing philosophies long before an incendiary column slides across their desks.
“Is the newspaper a public bulletin board where anything goes,” Hiestand said, “or is there some obligation to your readers to perhaps protect them from information that might be misleading? I don’t know if one is a better answer, but it is something a news staff has to think about.
reports, Spring 2009