No laughing matter


Cartoons spark controversy on college campuses





There’s something funny about controversy.

When a juicy story surfaces, editorial cartoonists nationwide jump to see who can create the most tongue-in-cheek illustration. Recently, three college papers came under fire for printing cartoons critics considered offensive or insensitive. Though the law offers protection for the content of cartoons, it does not protect them from the consequences of controversy.

At the University of Florida, what some considered an ill-timed sex cartoon about Red Cross relief efforts in Haiti led to turmoil for the editors at The Independent Florida Alligator, and a cartoon published by Delta College’s Delta Collegiate commenting on new crime statistics for the school’s city of Saginaw, Mich. was seen as effective by some, but racist by others.

The cartoon that garnered the most negative attention and had the most serious ramifications for a newspaper staff came from The Observer, the student newspaper at the University of Notre Dame. The cartoon had a punch line about violence against gay students and resulted in the resignation of one of the newspaper’s editors.

“Editorial cartoons are supposed to be controversial,” said Chris Lamb, a professor of communications at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

Lamb is the author of Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons in the United States. His book examines several historical editorial cartoons and the legal issues they have faced.

Steve Kelley, president-elect of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, said the editorial freedoms given to cartoonists separate them from other journalists.

“We get to break all the rules of journalism. We get to exaggerate; we never have to offer a solution. We sit around and point out the flaws and throw pies at people. We just don’t have the rules that reporters have. There’s no stricture on a political cartoonist to be fair,” said Kelley said.

But the staffs of the Alligator, the Collegiate and the Observer learned that breaking some of these rules causes more trouble than others.

“We’re not going to be bullied.”

In January 2010, The Independent Florida Alligator added something racy to its weekly entertainment magazine, The Avenue: “sextoons.” These naughty student-drawn graphics feature current events-based ‘sex positions of the week,’ like the “Drop-Add,” and later, “The Snuggie,” said Alligator Editor-in-Chief Chelsea Keenan.

The third sextoon of the semester featured a couple having sex on a table while texting a number to the Red Cross to donate to Haiti relief, a well-known fundraising campaign that raised millions of dollars for the nation devastated by an earthquake in January.

This cartoon garnered negative attention, the likes of which the paper had not received for any of the previously published sextoons, Keenan said.

The paper’s goal was to use what had become a weekly fixture in the paper to further the cause of “Gators for Haiti,” another on-campus group that was raising money to help fund relief efforts, Keenan said.

Though the Alligator is independent of The University of Florida, when the cartoon backlash reached the university president, with one e-mail to him calling the cartoon “pornographic,” and negative letters to the editor began rolling in, the staff decided it was time to address the issue, Keenan said.

This was compounded by a call the paper received from The Red Cross, concerned with the organization’s potentially negative portrayal in the cartoon.

“We didn’t want [The Red Cross] to be upset and think the Alligator wasn’t supportive of what they were doing,” Keenan said.

The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” began the next day’s editorial, which issued the paper’s mea culpa for any offense caused by the cartoon, but defended its intentions.

“We owned up to it,” Keenan said. “We said: ‘We’re students. We are learning. We’re trying to figure things out.’ … Our joke didn’t come across and it fell a little flat.”

The paper still wanted to continue to run the sextoons next to the sex column in The Avenue, Keenan said. “We’re not going to be bullied … to stop running these sextoons,” she said.

However, realizing the paper may also be seen by younger members of the Gainesville community in which the university is located, the Alligator decided to tone the cartoons down by trying to strike a balance between commenting on the controversial and pointing out the offensive.

“If it’s a controversial issue, we want to do a cartoon that makes someone think about something,” Keenan said. “…But at the same time we don’t want people to be so outraged and so offended that they don’t pick up our paper ever again, which I think happened with the Haiti cartoon.”

Though a critical eye is necessary, Keenan acknowledges that not every reader can be pleased with every issue.“Everyone’s going to be offended by something,” she said.

“That week, our stands were empty”

In January, crime statistics about the Michigan town of Saginaw inspired a cartoon in the Delta Collegiate, the student newspaper at Delta College. The statistic named Saginaw as the city with the most violence per capita in the United States, Collegiate Adviser Kathie Marchlewski Bachleda said.

“My journalism students wanted to write about this issue. They did a large package on this issue of violence in Saginaw and the cartoon was a part of that package,” Bachleda said.

The cartoon depicted a young man visiting three Michigan cities: Midland, Bay City and Saginaw. In the first panel, a Midland resident greets him, hands him a painting and says: “Please enjoy this complimentary art.“In the second panel the man is in Bay City and a resident brags of the city’s number of bars and offers him a beer. In the third panel he is in Saginaw, where a masked man tells him they have “the most violent crime in the U.S.” and says “Here’s a bag of drugs to thank you for stopping by,” only to pull out a knife in the final panel and say: “Ok, now give me all your money…and drugs.”

Bachleda said a large number of Delta College students are from Saginaw County and are directly affected by these violent crimes.

“They’re studying in their homes and there are gunshots outside,” she said.

Some outspoken community members claimed the cartoon was racist, since the criminal drawn in the final two panels is wearing a black mask.

Bachleda said staff members predicted people might take issue with how the criminal was portrayed, a problem they tried to prevent by not giving the character an ethnicity and trying to make him seem very cartoon-like. The cartoon was drawn by one of the paper’s regular cartoonists, with input on the text from a reporter.

“We don’t think that there is a racial component to this issue of violence in Saginaw. We don’t think there is a color to it, and if there is, then we believe the color is green because we believe that there’s an economic issue we all have to work on solving,” Bachleda said.

The response to the cartoon has been mixed. While some community members thought the cartoon was racist and portrayed the community in a negative light, others thought it provoked discussion, which is arguably exactly what cartoons like this are meant to do.

“That week, our newspaper stands were empty. A great number of teachers used the paper, and the cartoon specifically, as a tool in their classes for discussion about this topic,” Bachleda said.

On Feb. 1, two weeks after the cartoon was first published, there was a forum with 10 speakers, including community leaders, among them a judge and the chief of police.

More than 300 people came to the event, and another is scheduled in April.

People gave statements and asked questions, some about the cartoon and others about the problem of violence in Saginaw, Bachleda said.

The paper has continued to publish cartoons since the crime-focused strip. However, Bachleda said, the staff has gone back to its usual entertainment or school-based issues, and rarely does it publish such a “political undertone.”

Bachleda said a college setting is a perfect place to spark a discussion about a larger issue, like the violence in Saginaw.

“The function of the college newspaper is to be a voice of the students,” Bachleda said. “They’re talking about issues that are important to them, that matter to our student body. And so while some people found this offensive, it really did create a positive outcome. It did spark the dialogue it was intended to spark. So I think there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in that.”

“For this, we sincerely apologize.”

Recently, one of the most widely covered and controversial editorial cartoons in a college newspaper was printed on Jan. 13 by Notre Dame University’s student newspaper The Observer. The cartoon made a joke about violence against gay students, which garnered attention from organizations like the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and national media outlets.

In the cartoon, a character in the shape of a caricature of a wood saw, holding a drink and talking to a man in the next panel. The saw says to the man, “What is the easiest way to turn a fruit into a vegetable?” The male character responds, “No idea,” to which the saw responds, “A baseball bat.”

Two days later, the Observer issued an apology in the form of an editorial for the errors in judgment that led to the cartoon being printed. “The Observer, though an independent newspaper, is representative of the community of the University of Notre Dame and the values it so cherishes: family, understanding, service, respect and love,” the editorial reads. “Allowing this cruel and hateful comic a place on our pages disgraced those values and severely hurt members of our Notre Dame family — our classmates, our friends. For this, we sincerely apologize.”

Despite the Observer’s independence from the university, Notre Dame also issued a statement after the cartoon’s publication, denouncing “the implication that violence or expressions of hate toward any person or group of people is acceptable or a matter that should be taken lightly.”

The outcry over the cartoon led to the Observer accepting the resignation of the paper’s then-Assistant Managing Editor Kara King. A letter from King was posted on the Observer’s Web site, in which she claims responsibility for allowing the “message of hate” to print in the paper. Though controversial and hurtful to some, the cartoon published in the Notre Dame Observer alluded to violence, but not to any specific threat, which is where courts draw the line in finding content to be protected, said Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for the Student Press Law Center. “Is it a credible threat? Is the threat of violence imminent and not just speculative, not just something in the future? It has to be something that creates the clear and present danger of imminent lawless conduct,” Hiestand said.

“They’re supposed to shake you up.”

The content of these cartoons has been under close scrutiny, and resulted in varied responses and outcomes. However, they all had the precedent of the protections of parody and jest to fall back on. Laws that protect parody, like mocking or exaggerating a public figure’s persona, make cartoons much more protected from legal action than the written word.

It’s difficult to succeed in a libel case against a cartoon, Lamb said, citing the 1988 Supreme Court case Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, which established that parody is legally protected.

Hiestand said the Falwell case established the standard still in place today, which is that the readers’ perceptions make all the difference.

“What the Falwell case stands for is the notion that if people understand that something is intended as a joke, that its not intended to be taken seriously, then that material can’t be successfully sued upon,” Hiestand said. But when a joke falls flat, or does not come across as a parody to the audience, the material can be have an unintended connotation.

“Where students can run into trouble, is that they’re not very good at doing humor, simply because they don’t do it very often and doing good humor is very, very difficult,” Hiestand said.

If the readers can claim that they didn’t know the material was meant in jest, Hiestand said, then the material may fall into the same categories as any other potentially actionable printed material. “Once there has been a determination that a reasonable reader could interpret this as being factual, or not a joke, then you look at it and you’re thinking it’s libelous and you’re looking at it just like you would any other libelous material in the context of material that would incite violence,” he said.

The ultimate responsibility over the cartoons that go to print lies with the newspaper’s publisher, Steve Kelley said. Editors should be able to understand the meaning of a cartoon, and its potential ramifications, before approving — or rejecting — it for print, he said.

“If it elicits anger or resentment from readers you should be able to weather that. You should anticipate it. Political cartoons by their nature are incendiary.”

Throughout the historical legal cases involving cartoons and the circumstances still surrounding them, their purpose and function as an editorial tool has been protected, and their place on the opinion page has been maintained.”

They’re supposed to shake you up. They’re supposed to reach down and grab the reader and shake them by the shirt collar,” Chris Lamb said. “If we start censoring speech or editing cartoons because you’re offended, well, where does that leave us?

By Katie Maloney, SPLC staff writer


reports, Spring 2010