Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cartoon Controversy Hits Madison

Following a controversy at the University of Illinois, the Badger Herald on Monday ran this editorial, which included alongside it one of the offensive Danish cartoons. Here's the crux of it:
"While the Danish cartoons in question are undoubtedly offensive, regrettable distortions of a predominately peaceful religion and illustrations that run against the teachings of Islam, they are also now the impetus of riots that have caused numerous deaths, reduced symbols of global peace to charred ruins and brought attention to a clearly unstable region of the globe.

"As a result, the cartoons in question are clearly newsworthy and it is our firm belief that the media ought not be a gatekeeper guided by prude censorship, but rather a vehicle of facilitation in the grand marketplace of ideas. While one may aptly question the newspapers that originally ran these cartoons, it would seem that the illustrations have now become more than depictions of an unsavory nature and commenced to stand also for the very necessity of free speech.

"People have a right to see these drawings and make their own impressions as to whether they are per se offensive (which we maintain them to be), sufficient grounds for bloody riots (which we firmly believe them not to be) or the sort of speech that is so frightening in nature a society cannot function if it is allowed (which we firmly believe them not to be)."

Letters in response to this decision are here and here, and represent and interesting constellation of opinions, understandings, and misunderstandings of attitudes on all sides. You can read more of the community reaction here.

Many people are saying that the newspaper would not have printed these cartoons if the belittled a group other than Muslims. I'm not so sure. The year after I graduated, The Falcon, Quincy University's student newspaper, accepted an ad from a Holocaust denial organization. Their argument was that they always accepted advertising, and that everyone had a right to be heard. In my mind, that was the wrong decision, as rejecting ads is pretty commonplace, newspapers always make decisions about how to spend limited space, and it really didn't have the news value the Badger Herald staff imputes to the Muhammad drawings. However, I tend to take student journalists at face value when they say they're only acting out of commitment to free speech. College students are, after all, notoriously idealistic, and often radical in their application of those ideals.


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