Notorious Daily issue caused chaos, lawsuit for rights

Joe Carlson

Editor’s note: This year is the 20th anniversary of what was arguably the Daily’s most controversial issue ever, the Daily Inquirer humor issue.

It’s not every day that the name of The Minnesota Daily’s editor appears in the title of a court case opposite the University’s president.
But such was the case in 1983, when Daily editor Kate Stanley filed suit against the University for allowing students the option to withhold $1.80 in mandatory fees that went to the student paper.
Stanley inherited the controversy over the Daily’s spring 1979 humor issue during her first week as editor in chief. The issue eventually blossomed into Stanley vs. Magrath years after she left the newspaper.
So the $1.80 became the subject of a major furor that included special hearings in both chambers of the Legislature, official condemnation from then-Gov. Al Quie and years of court battles. In the process, nearly every newspaper in Minnesota weighed in on the debate in editorials and opinions columns.
“The stench from the University of Minnesota Daily ‘sick’ issue of June 4 (1979) still hangs repugnantly in the atmosphere,” Al Johnson, a columnist from Brownton, Minn., wrote that year. “Let’s hope it doesn’t dissipate until corrective action is taken to prevent reoccurrence.”
With varying degrees of vitriolic prose, many outstate newspapers expressed the same sentiment, writing that the Daily student editors had crossed a line and deserved to be punished so that a repeat incident would never occur again.
“Initially, we got very little support from the Minnesota press,” said Kate Stanley, now a Star Tribune editorial writer. “The reflexive response from the outstate papers was vicious.”
The Daily Inquirer humor issue, which ran during spring finals week 1979, was branded by critics as sexist, racist, homophobic, sacrilegious and sophomoric. The feature story was an interview with Jesus Christ, supposedly published by a tabloid called Today’s Stupid with the headline “Christ Speaks”:
TS — How do you explain the large following you developed?
JC — People are stupid.
TS — What was the thrust of your message?
JC — Take drugs and fuck. And drink.
TS — Do you really mean that?
JC — Naw, I guess not. Just take drugs.
Although reactions to the issue varied widely, nearly everyone agreed on one point: The humor was in poor taste.
The Daily published an editorial apologizing for the incident shortly afterward.
“There’s no question that the humor was sophomoric,” Stanley said in an interview last week. “What else do you expect from sophomores?”
“What caused the trouble was when freshman and sophomore commuter students brought the issue home, and mom and dad saw it,” she said.
It didn’t take long for mom and dad to spread word across the state. Two weeks after the issue first hit the stands, the chairman of the state Senate Education Committee announced a formal inquiry into the relationship between the University and the paper.
Hearings were held, testimony was recorded and an ultimatum was announced: Regents should sever financial ties with the Daily, or the Legislature would pass a bill to that effect.
The regents resisted on advice from their lawyers that pulling funding would look like a retaliation against the paper in an attempt to curtail its content, prohibited by the First Amendment and several legal precedents.
But pressure continued. The state House scheduled a hearing on the matter that resulted in a letter to the regents urging optional fees for the Daily.
James Ahler, then-president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, testified that the issue was not the Daily’s right to publish, but that students were forced to pay for it even if it offended them.
“Even the notorious finals edition is, I’m afraid, part of the price we have to pay for freedom of expression. The Catholic League is not interested in censoring the Daily,” he told the House committee.
Eventually, the regents adopted a proposal by then-University President C. Peter Magrath that made it possible for students to withhold money from the Daily.
Then the newspaper filed suit to overturn the decision, and Stanley vs. Magrath was born. Originally, a federal trial court ruled in favor of the regents, saying theirs was a “rational” action that did not infringe upon press rights. The Daily appealed and finally won in 1984.
The case never reached the Supreme Court. However, another case protesting the use of mandatory student services fees in Wisconsin was heard in high court last week. A decision is not expected until next summer.
Stanley, who has held her Star Tribune editorial job since she left the Daily almost 20 years ago, said although the whole controversy was painful for her and the paper, it served a necessary function.
“Now and then, people need to be reminded that newspapers are so free, so important,” she said, “that once in a while newspapers publish something absolutely outlandish, and there’s nothing government can do about it.”

Joe Carlson welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3200.