Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Student Editor Fired over Mohammad Cartoons

The editor of the University of Illinois’ student newspaper has been fired for running the controversial Mohammad cartoons that sparked recent protests and violence throughout the Islamic world. Technically, editor-in-chief Acton Gorton was fired because he did not seek proper advice before running the cartoons. But that just sounds like a dodge by the board that governs the Daily Illini newspaper.

As a former editor-in-chief of a university newspaper, I have a lot of sympathy for Gorton. Running a school paper is not an exercise in professional journalism. It’s a learning experience. It’s a means by which future journalists and leaders can hone skills and test boundaries. As such, school newspaper editors should have greater leeway to make errors of judgment.

That’s not to say it was wrong to publish the Mohammad cartoons. It wasn’t. But it was foolish of the editor to think he could get away with it without angering others. When I was a student editor, I spent the entire year under fire for the various editorial decisions I made. Someone was always demanding an apology or calling for my resignation.

The lesson I learned was that it’s incredibly important to understand the ramifications of your actions before you take them. You have to know when you’re going to upset people and you have to decide whether what you’re about to say is worth the consequences. Sometimes upsetting people is unavoidable and absolutely necessary. Sometimes it just isn’t worth it. And sometimes the harshest of reactions can be tempered by seeking advice and, if possible, obtaining consent beforehand.

In the University of Illinois case, the editor seems to have erred by not warning enough people before publishing the cartoons. He simply failed to grasp the full ramifications of his actions. Had he consulted more people, he would either have avoided much of the ensuing conflict or he would have known beforehand that he was putting his job on the line.

But a failure to understand the ramifications of your actions is not cause for dismissal—not when we’re talking about a student editor. The board governing the Daily Illini was dead wrong to fire Gorton. Doing so sends the message that the Daily Illini is not a place where students are expected to learn journalism. It is instead a place where students are expected to obey a specific ideology that values a useless form of hyper-tolerance over the age-old rights of free speech.

What a poor lesson to be teaching.

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