Testing the limits and consequences of free speech on university campuses
By Sunny Freeman
September 26, 2007
The new editor-in-chief at the The University of Western Ontario’s Gazette, Canada’s oldest student newspaper, is starting the school year equipped with a clean slate of ethics and a fresh approach to campus journalism.
The paper, founded in 1906 at the London, Ontario campus, learned a grueling lesson on the limits of satire and free speech on university campuses after it published a contentious article in its April Fool’s Day spoof edition earlier this year.
For the past ten years, the legendary Gazette Spoof Issue has aimed to top the previous year’s edition by humouring and stupefying its readers with outrageously satirical articles.
“We had one or two controversial issues before but there has been nothing like this response,” said Allison Buchan-Terrell, who became editor-in-chief a month after the controversial article ran.
This year’s spoof edition made wild accusations about the university’s president Paul Davenport and other prominent staff, but an article called “Labia Majora Carnage” inspired an unprecedented degree of reader indignation.
The article portrayed a Take Back the Night march in which the actual London Police Chief Murray Faulkner rapes a fictional feminist.
SUNNY FREEMAN is a contributing editor and writer for JournalismEthics.ca. While completing her Masters at the UBC School of Journalism, she freelances for the Tyee, the Thunderbird,The Ubyssey, the Metro News and the Feminist Media Project. She holds an honors BA in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario and a BA in English/Cultural Studies from McMaster University. Her passion for politics and writing drew her into journalism. She focuses her graduate studies on politics in media, and the politics of media.
“He grabbed the loudspeaker from Ostrich’s wild vagina and took it into a dark alley to teach it a lesson,” the unknown author writes.
At the time, the Gazette had not considered the shaky ethical and legal ground in was embarking on in using anonymous authors but naming real people — and calling them rapists.
Days after the article was published, critics accused the paper of fostering an unsafe environment for female students on campus and condoning rape. Protests broke out across the University of Western Ontario campus, petitions circulated, angry Facebook groups formed and a multitude of letters to the editor poured in to the Gazette.
The paper was walking a tenuous line, Buchan-Terrell admits, but she says it is often difficult to gauge whether readers will determine an article has crossed that line.
“This generation has a different kind of humour. It’s more dry and in your face, like Borat,” she told JournalismEthics.ca in a telephone interview from the Gazette office in London, Ontario.
Although reporters pitched and brainstormed ideas for the issue, said Buchan-Terrell, who was a reporter at the time, only three people oversee decisions to run final copy.
“The rest of us didn’t have a say. There was debate only among the deputy editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief. And the possible angle was difficult to predict,” she said.
While an editorial board consisting of two male students and a female decided the paper’s fate on April Fool’s eve, the entire staff at the Gazette was painted with the same anti-feminist brush, said Buchan-Terrell. Despite the lack of consultation, the paper’s policy was to stand as a team, holding each staff member equally responsible.
The fact that the article was written by an anonymous reporter using the alias “Xavier” further blurred the ethical boundary.
Although there were calls to reveal the writer’s name, the paper’s editors considered it unsafe to do so because the paper was receiving threatening letters about the issue.
Nevertheless, Buchan-Terrell said she struggled with the decision to stand as a team.
“To be a woman and to be called a misogynist was tough. I’ve written articles on sexual assault and the lack of female faculty. It was hard because people were implying the paper was dominated by a jock culture, but there are a lot of smart women on the staff.”
Eventually, the national media picked up on the news at the restless campus.
Western’s president Paul Davenport accused the article of “attacking the safety of women.” The university’s administration was called in less than two weeks after the article ran to sanction the rogue paper.
At a town hall meeting on Apr.13, the Gazette staff and university administration agreed to a number of new initiatives to regulate the campus press including a new code of ethics and an advisory board comprised of journalism professors and professional journalists.
The Gazette’s new code of ethics, accessible on its website, gives the paper a unique status. Not only is it the oldest student newspaper and one of the only daily campus papers, but it is now one of the only university papers in Canada with an established ethical code.
The code, based on the Canadian Association of Journalists statement of principles, promises editorial independence and newsroom inclusiveness, in addition to staples like accuracy, balance and fairness.
However, the university was not satisfied with the motions passed by the University Students’ Council (USC). The Board of Governors (BoG) decided they needed more control to reign in the Gazette.
In May, the BoG passed a motion granting the university’s administration the power to withhold student fees to fund the paper.
It also recommended “that the distribution of the Gazette on campus be suspended, if they judge such suspension to be justified by an egregious violation of the Journalistic Code of Ethics.”
The BoG itself will decide whether any of the newspaper’s content violated journalism ethics, although there are no journalists on the board.
In the first issue of the Gazette’s 101st year, it announced it would comply with the university’s demands and more — its staff would also undergo formal equity training and the paper would launch a formal process for complaints.
The editorial staff admitted it had made a mistake. “We learned a hard lesson after the publication of the Spoof Issue about the power of the written word for good and bad and about the limits of good taste and free speech,” read an editorial in the newspaper. It promised that through practising responsible journalism the error in judgment would never happen again.
Buchan-Terrell says that doesn’t mean the paper will lose its independence or its edge. And she assures that neither the USC nor the BoG have any control over editorial content.
“We’re staying true to the tradition of the Gazette, we’re just improving it. We’ll tread carefully and make decisions based on our readership and based on good taste,” she said.
“I think it puts the paper in a tough situation. Does the Gazette feel afraid to run anything pushing the envelope now? What if the administration disapproves of something the student body has no qualms with?” he asked.
Neither editor, however, believes the incident has tarnished the reputation of the paper.
And the University of Western Ontario is doing everything in its power, including granting itself the unprecedented ability to withhold funding to the paper if independent attempts at ethics fail, to ensure the reputation of the preppy campus is unsullied in the scrutinizing eyes of the media, donors, alumni and potential students.