Amid the reams of editorials and articles covering the Mohammed-cartoon controversy, the uniquely important role of independent college publications has been all but lost. While newspapers and opinion journals throughout the United States have refrained from publishing the cartoons — some out of fear, others out of purported concerns for propriety — at least six college publications have gone where few of their grown-up counterparts have dared. Score one for uppity, principled 22-year-olds.
Harvard College’s self-styled conservative-gadfly newspaper, the Harvard Salient, is one of two Boston-area-university publications to have entered the fray. (Emerson College’s weekly Berkeley Beacon is the other.) Alongside an explanatory editorial titled “A Pox (err, Jihad) on Free Expression,” the rabble-rousing Salient published four of the Mohammed cartoons, as well as two anti-Semitic cartoons from state-run Arab newspapers that had been commissioned by Muslim editors in response to the controversial Danish drawings.
The Salient’s editors didn’t mince words describing their motives and world view. “Christianity has evolved as the West has evolved,” they intoned, “and Christians have grown thick skin . . . . We have no doubt that Islam will one day evolve as well, to be able to tolerate things its practitioners might find offensive or taboo.”
None of Harvard’s other undergraduate publications — from its two student newspapers to its 15 other student journals — has published the cartoons.
The row at Harvard over the cartoons’ publication has been placidly civil. In an attempt to air student views, the Harvard College Interfaith Council held a campus-wide discussion last Thursday attended by a couple dozen students and a few faculty and administrators. The participants were cordial, with the Salient nonetheless coming in for some sharp licks. Muslim students voiced some anger, but were more annoyed that going on four years after 9/11 Western students betray a dangerous ignorance of Islam. The Salient didn’t give an inch, and neither did its detractors, and back-and-forth it went.
While they may not agree with the paper’s stated motives, students across the political spectrum have reaffirmed the Salient’s right to publish the drawings, as have Harvard’s administrators. “Students’ publications have the right of free press,” Associate Dean Judith H. Kidd remarked to the Harvard Crimson. Kidd also sent an e-mail to the Salient to warn it of — and protect it from — potential retaliatory attacks. (Some Muslim students found it insulting that an administrator would think the paper might need protection from American, much less Harvard-attending, Muslims.)
Student publications at the University of Wisconsin, Northern Illinois University, Illinois State University, and the University of Illinois also published some of the Mohammed cartoons. Responses have varied from muted (NIU) to rancorous (ISU). The editor in chief and opinions-page editor of the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini were suspended from their posts by the paper’s publisher, a non-profit corporation, after students protested the cartoons’ publication.
Overshadowing all of this is the Supreme Court’s decision last Tuesday not to review Hosty v. Carter, a 2005 Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision supporting the right of a dean at Governors State University, in Illinois, to censor college publications. That ruling, which currently applies only in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, supported the college’s contention that, at least at public institutions, the college press’s First Amendment rights are no greater than those enjoyed by high-school student newspapers, which, thanks to a 1988 decision by the US Supreme Court, are subject to administrative censorship. The Supremes’ decision not to grant review to the Hosty opinion signals dangerous times ahead for independent college journalism.