How offensive can we be?

May 052004
Authors: Christopher J. Ortiz

I never thought I would last this long – to the last week of

classes as the opinion editor of The Rocky Mountain Collegian. Not

after my first couple of weeks on the job.

On Sept. 15, an opinion columnist wrote a column titled, “Where

is my minority group,” portraying his sentiments about minority and

religious advocacy student organizations on campus and about

affirmative action and himself, being a straight, non-religious

Caucasian male, going up against minorities and women in job

interviews. I read the column, knowing that it might offend some

students, but it went through me and other editors and made the

next day’s paper.

As expected, it offended people, particularly a female student

from Black Student Services. She felt compelled to write a letter

to the editor and a personal letter to the columnist.

The following Wednesday, I found myself along with another

editor, sitting through an Associated Students of CSU Senate

meeting with aggravated students who were upset with the columnist.

They were upset with his column but what prompted the discussion

was his personal response to the female student who wrote him. I

won’t go into detail what he wrote, but trust me, he degraded her

as a woman and as an African American.

People were understandably upset. I was upset at my columnist’s

actions and at the fact I was sitting in an ASCSU meeting hearing

remarks about how the student government needs to censor columnists

and criticizing the Collegian for letting this column run.

The Daily Collegian at the University of Massachusetts found

itself in a similar predicament. “Pat Tillman is not a hero: He got

what was coming to him” was the headline for Rene Gonzalez’s column

at the Daily Collegian. Gonzalez wrote that the NFL football player

who died in Iraq after joining the Army Rangers, walking away from

a $3.6 million football contract, was not a hero. Gonzalez even

called him a “pedejo,” or idiot.

UMass’ Student Government Association was voting on a motion

Wednesday night asking that The Daily Collegian no longer receive

direct financial contribution from SGA, essentially making the

student newspaper financially independent. The motion was made

after the Tillman column.

The situation asks what kind of relationship a student

government has with a student newspaper that receives student fees

directly, or indirectly, from the student government. It also asks

how offensive can a student newspaper be without alienating itself

from students.

Ferron Salniker, an editor at the Daily Collegian, said there

are underlying reasons why the student government is doing


She said some senators who agree with the motion see it as a

form of punishment for publishing the Tillman column; some senators

have an issue of making financial contributions to the newspaper

that allowed the column to be published.

Salniker also said that if the motion passes, SGA would be

violating a section of its own bylaws that states it cannot punish

or control media outlets.

So, what defense do newspapers use when they publish offensive

columns or articles?

“It’s a matter of providing campus with their voice. We

represent all students, and it’s our duty to present all sides,”

Salniker said.

In the case of my columnist (who was excused from the Collegian

after the incident for several reasons), I personally didn’t agree

with his column, but if I started to edit columns subjectively,

based on if I agree with the argument or not, the readers wouldn’t

be able to read columns from Republicans or radical liberals or

from people who listen to Creed. But I don’t edit columns that way.

I knew, and other editors knew, that Jacob’s column would offend

some people, but we still let it ran. I am sure the editors at The

Daily Collegian knew Gonzalez’s column would offend people, but the

media have that power to run offensive material.

Would the Collegian here ever run into a situation where an

offensive column would prompt ASCSU to stop funding it? Most likely


ASCSU President-elect Katie Clausen said the student government

does not have a direct control over the Collegian’s operations. It

does oversee a small portion of the Collegian’s budget and ensures

that we provide the students with a daily newspaper, but in no way

does ASCSU or any members oversee the editorial content of the


But when offensive columns receive more criticism than

predicted, college newspapers can learn.

“We learned a great deal, to look more closely at columns and

headlines and the repercussions (or running offensive columns). We

can get more attention than expected,” Salniker said.

The issues this Collegian and The Daily Collegian encountered

are not new and they are sure to occur again. Newspapers do not

exist to be offensive, but they also do not exist to be safe.

Chris was the opinion editor for the Collegian. He is leaving

the newspaper and heading Student Media’s new magazine publishing

next year.

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