MD

2004-05-17

Thursday, July 31, 2014

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From the Daily: Crisis at the Collegian

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published May 16, 2004

It is uncommon for a student writer to see
his name repeated outside his own paper — syndicated by wire
services, for instance, or in a flattering e-mail from a major
publication. It confirms that the student, though he writes for a
college paper, is a vital part of a much larger network of media,
and that in the exciting times of internet connectivity, all
writers are on an equal footing. In this age, the college paper
columnist can have as much influence as a writer for The New York
Times.

But a writer can also rub these networks the wrong way, setting
off censure from outlets across the country. This happened to
Massachusetts Daily Collegian writer Rene Gonzalez, who wrote a
column that deflated the heroic coverage of NFL player and American
soldier Pat Tillman, who died in military service. In a precise but
inflammatory manner, Gonzalez deconstructed what he called the
“knee-jerk” praise for Tillman and offered a competing
perspective: Tillman was not a hero, but rather an example of how
Americans conflate sports greats with military heroes, turning
citizens into “the cheerleaders of the home team”
instead of critical thinkers.

The response was swift and severe. National cable news channels
picked up the story, local readers flooded the Collegian with angry
e-mails, the school’s Student Government Association nearly
demanded a refund of more than $10,000 allocated to the paper and
the SGA Senate approved a motion that condemned Gonzalez’s
views. The President of UMass Amherst condemned the column, calling
it a “disgusting, arrogant and intellectually immature attack
on a human being who died in service to his country.” Even
the Massachusetts Senate approved a resolution of condemnation,
with one member, Sen. Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth), calling Gonzalez
a “nitwit.”

Though some of the retorts have carried little institutional
weight, others have threatened the paper’s ability to operate
freely. Efforts to impose economic punishment are reminiscent of
last year’s rehearing of Hosty v. Carter by the U.S. 7th
Circuit Court of Appeals, in which the administration of Governors
State University sought to give school officials editorial control
of the student newspaper. They based their argument on Hazelwood
School District v. Kuhlmeier, which limits First Amendment
protections for high school students by establishing prior review
for administrators.

Both the UMass Amherst administration and SGA threaten to make
their college paper more like a high school publication, using all
available institutional pressures to condemn controversial opinions
deemed dangerous to the University’s reputation and financial
viability. They have not explicitly demanded editorial control, but
their excessive pressure on Gonzalez serves as a clear threat to
future students who wish to express political dissent.

The Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of speech and the press
do not exist to protect uncontroversial opinions. Instead, they
ensure that even controversial and inflammatory opinions can be
presented freely. Gonzalez has disagreed with an opinion many
Americans hold, but he is not “un-American” as his
detractors have stipulated; his efforts to create debate are at the
center of the democratic process.

Rather than support this exercise in independent and critical
thought, the University administration has shunned Rene Gonzalez.
In so doing, they have put a stain on their reputation as a
university and institute for intellectual discourse far worse than
anything caused by a controversial opinion columnist.

The Amherst SGA, a functional equivalent of the Michigan Student
Assembly, is unknowingly threatening its own freedoms by condemning
the Collegian. The Hazelwood case that established the right to
prior review for high school administrations extended to cover all
“school-sponsored expressive activities,” meaning the
administration can censor student-selected speakers, films, theater
and even governments. In siding with the administration today, SGA
may be digging its own grave for tomorrow.

Though the Collegian may have monetary ties to the University,
the campus community should stand behind it as a forum for diverse
opinions; if it does not, the paper will simply be a mouthpiece for
the University and other supporting institutions. The importance of
a free and independent press cannot be overstated.

The controversy regarding the Collegian is truly worthy of
national attention. It demonstrates not only the essential place
that college papers have within our country’s media dynamic,
but also the unique importance of student opinions. The Michigan
Daily stands in solidarity with all college writers who seek to
create dialogue and debate at both the campus and national level,
despite all efforts to stifle their freedoms and steal their
voice.


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