Letter from the editor: Despite regret, free speech must remain protected
Last week, I made a terrible mistake.
In a distracted rush, I allowed the Daily Wildcat to print a comic strip illustrating a parent threatening his child to scare him about coming out. The child makes a crude joke, both fictional characters laugh.
Its intention was not to be funny in the same way that comics like “Garfield” should be. Instead, it meant to highlight a social commentary about hate speech and crimes against the LGBTQ community. But the cartoon’s message came across as “this should happen” although it meant to say “this does happen.” And the message should have been, “This does but should not happen.” That message could not fit in a four-panel drawing.
The world is full of awful things, and joking about them can work to shed light on them. But the jokes can only work if you use your medium to make those awful things better, not worse.
However, just as progress is hindered by satire that fails to contribute to meaningful discussion, progress is also hindered by moves to quash free speech. And, no matter how offensive it is, offensive speech remains protected.
It’s true that the cartoonist’s employment with the Wildcat was terminated Wednesday night, which led other readers to cite his First Amendment rights. But no one is constitutionally guaranteed space in a newspaper. The cartoonist can still publish. He just can’t do it in the Wildcat.
The comic itself has been retracted and removed from the Wildcat’s archive of .pdf pages.
The Wildcat has already changed its editorial policies regarding the comics page. It will no longer be a page left until just before deadline, to be rushed through and finished within just a minute or so. It will also require approval by three Wildcat editors, especially because it is so important to discuss satire to make sure it is effective.
These changes, though, are up to the Wildcat staff to decide and implement, and sanctions by the UA would be a violation of our First Amendment rights to free speech, even if it’s speech we regret.
Legal precedence has already demonstrated that school officials — including student government officers — cannot exercise power over student publications, regardless of financial support. To withdraw funding, discipline staff members or demand approval of content before it prints would be a violation of the First Amendment.
In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Brandenburg v. Ohio that speech that isn’t protected by the Constitution must be “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.” Though the material of the comic strip was offensive, it did not incite “an immediate breach of peace.”
Other cases, such as the decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Husain v. Springer, have ruled that public universities cannot impose sanctions that would censor or retaliate against speech by student journalists “on the basis of content or viewpoints expressed through that outlet.”
The court ruled that “[w]hen a state university official takes retaliatory action against a newspaper for publishing certain content … the official’s action creates a chilling effect which gives rise to a First Amendment injury.”
The mistake of printing the comic strip belongs to me, and it will continue to be something I regret — but I cannot take it back.
What I can do is learn from it, and hope other Daily Wildcat editors learn from it too. Inhibiting free speech detracts from that learning experience.
There’s a newspaper to put out tonight, and many papers after that. The Daily Wildcat and I are moving forward, and our focus is now on supporting open dialogue about awareness, journalism ethics, free speech and how we approach the awful things in the world.
— Kristina Bui is the editor-in-chief of the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter via @kbui1.