Old image roils talk on speech

A fees committee error raised questions about freedom of speech in student publications.

Parker Lemke

Four years after its publication, a controversial back cover of a conservative campus newspaper at the University of Minnesota is stirring discussion of sensitivity and free speech.

The Student Services Fees Committee, which allocates funding to student organizations each year, recently warned Students for a Conservative Voice that an image printed in a 2011 issue of its Minnesota Republic newspaper was insensitive to Arabs and that it may pay close attention to the paper’s content in the future when allocating funds.

Although the University quickly said that was a mistake and that the committee must remain neutral when allocating funds, the controversy demonstrates the balance between freedom of expression and political correctness at public universities.

“Someone made a mistake,” said Office for Student Affairs associate director Sara Carvell. “That’s why we have multiple layers to this process, so there are checks and balances for things like that.”

The issue in question, published in 2011, had a satirical back cover depicting a man dressed in Middle Eastern clothing holding an assault rifle and burning a copy of the newspaper with the caption “The Minnesota Republic: Terrorists Hate It.”

As a public institution, the University cannot dictate the content or viewpoint of student publications, including those it funds.

Similar free speech disputes between campus publications and the public universities that sponsor them have popped up regularly in the past few decades, said Brett Johnson, a University journalism doctoral candidate who studies First Amendment theory.

“Just the sheer threat — ‘We will be watching you; we will be monitoring what you do’ — that’s enough to chill speech,” he said.

Student groups committee chair Achintya Saurabh said the image was found among sample papers provided during the group’s presentation and that the committee asked for clarification on what the image meant and what the rationale was for publishing it.

“The group did a good job of presenting how [the image] was related to their mission,” he said.

In its initial recommendation, the fees committee wrote that it may pay close attention to content published by Students for a Conservative Voice, which operates Minnesota Republic, to ensure student services fees are not funding materials that “compromise the cultural harmony of the campus.”

Saurabh said each recommendation rationale is written individually by single members of the committee, which is made up of students and staff members.

“It was an error on our part as a committee, but it was not something that we intentionally meant,” he said. “We are not there to judge what a group can and can’t do.”

Instead, Saurabh said the committee allocates funds based on a group’s financial soundness and the impact it has on the student body.

Though the committee found fault with the image, its initial recommendation allocated about three-fourths of the group’s $140,445 request.

Students for a Conservative Voice President and Minnesota Republic Editor-in-Chief Allison Maass said when committee members met with the group before drafting its initial recommendations, they asked if the newspaper would publish something similar to the image again.

“I felt pressured that if I would have said ‘yes,’ our money would have got cut,” she said, adding that the group members who printed the 2011 image are no longer at the school and that she didn’t know the context for why it was published.

After the group received its initial recommendations, which included the warning, Maass published an article criticizing  the committee’s conduct on the conservative college news website Campus Reform.

Maass said OSA informed her two days later that the committee’s language was inappropriate and that it would be fixed in the final recommendations.

The Minnesota Republic doesn’t shy away from controversial subjects.

After OSA apologized in November for hosting a fiesta-themed party, the Minnesota Republic ran a picture of the school’s Goldy Gopher mascot wearing a sombrero on its front cover.

The conservative newspaper seeks to provide an alternative viewpoint on campus, Maass said, adding that it’s important to push the boundaries of political correctness.

“There’s always a reason. We don’t publish things just to piss people off or to offend people,” she said. “We do it to prove a point.”

In recent months, the University has sought ways to improve its campus climate and ensure that students and faculty from all cultural backgrounds feel welcomed at the school.

While journalism doctoral candidate Johnson said it’s a great goal to respect other cultures, it shouldn’t come at the expense of freedom of expression. Instead, he said universities should encourage discussions of the deeper issues behind why people find certain messages offensive.

“Public universities need to understand that the world is a messy, offensive place,” he said. “It’s the job of public university’s to prepare young people for that.”