When a humor issue isn’t so funny

The Daily finals week parody issue is certainly no stranger to controversy. In 1979, the paper outraged religious groups, state legislators and University officials with its “Christ Speaks!” issue. Featuring a satirical interview with Jesus Christ, the edition, replete with sexual references, roundly ridiculed a variety of religious, racial and ethnic groups. Its publication prompted the Board of Regents to permit students to withhold the portion of their fees that help underwrite the Daily. The paper went to court, and in an important free speech ruling five years later, the Daily prevailed on the grounds that its First Amendment rights had been violated.

Earlier this month, the Daily inflamed emotions on campus again with its latest sophomoric attempt at satire. The issue lampooned University officials at a fictional “kegger” and included a story declaring that Gov. Jesse Ventura had become “King for Life.” But the item that fueled protests from dozens of students was a seven-panel cartoon on the back page. It depicted a black man named Laron accusing, in derogatory terms, a black woman of being promiscuous after he learned she was pregnant. Critics said the cartoon was racist and misogynist.

The precedent upheld in the Daily case 20 years ago is a precious one, protecting freedom of expression and academic freedom on campus. However, with that freedom comes a responsibility to seek the truth, to challenge conventional beliefs and to enlighten the readership.

The cartoon, and the issue in general, did not appear to pursue those aims. The cartoon contained no apparent social or political commentary. It was crude and irresponsible, insulting without reason. And it was particularly disheartening because it led readers to question the Daily’s commitment to inclusiveness, a principle reflected in its larger body of work.

The Daily has long sought to increase understanding among diverse groups in its pages. At times, that has meant publishing ideas and opinions that are controversial or unpopular. In a free society, having a robust avenue for dissent is a cornerstone, and the Daily is committed to aggressive reporting and editorial writing and cartooning and won’t shudder under pressure if it believes its cause is just. However, this cartoon was an abuse. Unlike past cartoons that have drawn criticism, this one did not have a discernable political or social message. Outrage and
apology are warranted here.

As modern society struggles to combat the resilience of prejudice, discrimination and institutional racism remain emotional issues on campus. In recent months, students and professors at St. Cloud State University have described what they call an environment of intolerance. Three professors have sent letters to high school students of color asking them to think twice before applying to SCSU. At the University, students said last week that the cartoon was an overt expression of prejudices that are often subtle and remain imbedded at our school.

While college campuses have traditionally been at the forefront in challenging racial injustice, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there remains a long way to go.

So we begin a new school year with the hope that these recent events will serve as an impetus for positive change in the Daily and on campus.

If we’re going to increase understanding and compassion, we need an open, civil dialogue. Throughout the year, we will encourage in these pages a candid discussion of how race is experienced on campus. And how relations might be improved.

Also, your student newspaper will be more representative of the community it serves. That means not only bringing in more students of color but also students of varying political ideologies, majors and economic backgrounds. We encourage those who would like to add their perspective to their student paper to write letters to the editor, offer columns and apply for staff jobs in editorial departments. There is a shortage of minority voices in the media, and the Daily aspires to be a training ground for anyone who wishes to become a journalist. Daily staffers will also have training throughout the year to help us better understand these issues.

Also, we hope that groups that criticize the Daily for this cartoon would also raise their voices when they hear racism and misogyny in other media. Surely, there is no shortage of such sentiments.

As for the finals issue on the whole: Gone is the lazy practice of lampooning campus figures under assumed bylines. The Daily exists to provide relevant and insightful campus news. It exists to serve as a careful observer of the University. It exists to help us better understand our world and the people and ideas in it. And our pledge to readers is that we will seek to do that in each edition we print.


Todd Milbourn welcomes comments at [email protected]