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Student publication pulled from orientation bags at N.C. State
Controversy centers on a racial slur in campus Free Expression Tunnel
July 12, 2011

NORTH CAROLINA — A tunnel celebrating freedom of expression is at the center of a controversy over freedom of the press at North Carolina State University.

On Friday, copies of the Brick — a student-run publication designed for incoming freshmen at NCSU — were pulled from the bags that are distributed to participants in the school’s New Student Orientation program, held throughout July.

The removal was prompted by the discovery of a racial epithet in a photograph on one of the inside pages of the publication.

The photo was taken inside the school’s storied Free Expression Tunnel, an on-campus site of sanctioned graffiti in which any member of the public is able to paint messages.

After a series of meetings Friday involving school officials and NCSU student journalists, NSO staff members decided that the Brick — which combines elements of a yearbook, a guidebook and a newspaper — would be removed from the bags for the Monday and Tuesday sessions for incoming students.

Tuesday morning, the Brick staff and Gabe Wical, director of NSO, reached an agreement in which the university will resume distribution of the bags with the publication intact, under the condition that a mailing label-sized sticker is placed in each copy to cover up the part of the photo in question.

The sticker will include a link to a student government-sponsored event at the start of the 2011-12 academic year, during which students will join in painting the Free Expression Tunnel as a display of solidarity.

Chandler Thompson, a Brick staff member and student body president at NCSU, said she hopes the distribution will pick up again Wednesday.

Wical did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Though both sides came to a resolution relatively quickly, student journalists are still upset over what they see as a freedom of speech issue.

“Whether I agree with it or not, I defend students’ right to free speech in the tunnel,” said Susannah Brinkley, who graduated in May and served as editor of the Brick over the past few weeks. “I believe that the photo is an accurate representation of the tunnel on any given day.”

Evelyn Reiman, who oversees both student government and student media as associate vice chancellor in the division of student affairs, said the copies of the Brick were initially pulled because they did not fall in line with the larger university goal of increasing tolerance.

“The end goal [of the book] was to build campus unity, and the photo became something that broke down campus unity,” she said. “I think they (NSO) had the right to make the decision they did, since it was included in their materials.”

Though Brinkley was not initially in favor of a solution that would have covered up part of the photo, she said it “would have been a shame if students didn’t get to experience the book for what it was.”

Brinkley explained that neither she nor any of the more than ten people who previewed the Brick prior to publication noticed the reference in the photo.

It wasn’t until Friday morning that anybody affiliated with NCSU student media was made aware that the photo contained an offensive phrase. Bradley Wilson, coordinator for student media advising at the university and adviser to the Brick, received a forwarded email from the parents of an incoming freshman, expressing concerns over the editorial decision.

“[Our son] feels strongly, and we wholeheartedly agree, that the photograph selected to represent the Free Expression Tunnel completely contradicts the university's position of acceptance and tolerance,” the parents wrote in the email. “Please note the word nigger in the photo of the Free Expression Tunnel. We cannot imagine, yet sincerely hope that this was a gross oversight/complete incompetence.”

Brinkley said about 2,000 books had been distributed to incoming freshmen in the NSO bags prior to the parents’ email, with nobody mentioning anything about the image until a few days ago.

She added that 6,500 total copies of the 128-page Brick were printed for the incoming class. Though the publication would not have been included in the remaining NSO bags if the student journalists had refused to compromise, Brinkley explained that her staff was never prevented from handing out the book on its own time.

While Brinkley called the publication of the photo “unfortunate,” she feels there is no basis for her to issue a public apology.

Wilson, who wrote back to the parents on Friday, agreed.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked through that tunnel and seen the n-word written,” he said. “I don’t like seeing it, but that’s a part of life in the Free Expression Tunnel.”

Brinkley added that various parties suggested cropping the photo or ripping out an entire page from the Brick — both of which were solutions she did not support.

She said while Tuesday’s decision was “not my favorite outcome in the world, it was a solution that I think will appease everybody enough … Still, I do feel a bit censored because we couldn’t distribute as originally planned for a few days.”

Reiman called the final decision “a very thoughtful solution to a very difficult problem that came to our attention suddenly.”

In hindsight, however, the problem may have been a long time coming.

Unbeknownst to the student journalists until the end of last week, the same photo ran in a November 2010 edition of the Technician, NCSU’s student newspaper. The surprise, though, was that the photo had been altered in such a way as to blur out the offensive reference.

“To me, any alteration of an image is completely unacceptable,” Wilson said, adding that he is investigating what he called “a clear violation of our code of ethics.”

Looking back, the photo does not mark the first time the Free Expression Tunnel has been at the center of a controversy concerning the limits of student speech.

Created in the 1960s as an outlet for students to speak their minds, the tunnel became center-stage in November 2008, when threatening statements targeted at then President-elect Barack Obama surfaced on the walls.

Secret Service agents came to campus to investigate the statements.

Wilson said he has been disappointed that past controversies like this have not spurred more collective university action. Looking to the future, he hopes the recent Brick dispute may prompt change.

“Instead of dealing with the issue of racism, we’ve just covered it up,” he said. “Covering it up isn’t going to solve anything. People want to have a dialogue about the conflict between free expression and tolerance, and that’s something we should be promoting.”

By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer

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© 2011 Student Press Law Center

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