March 28, 2011
Photo by Justin Braun
Editor-in-Chief of Rollins student newspaper The Sandspur Nick Zazulia (Class of 2011) gives an introduction to the Forum.
On Thursday, March 24, students, faculty and staff participated in a community dialogue on the state of Rollins’ student media.
Two controversial articles, which were published in a recent issue of The Sandspur student newspaper, became the focus of scrutiny throughout the entire Rollins community. Those in attendance at what The Sandspur's dubbed a "Free Speech Forum" were encouraged to share their reactions, convictions, criticisms and suggestions openly and respectfully.
Energy and emotion charged the atmosphere in the Bush Auditorium throughout the 90 minutes of “open microphone.” Assistant Professor of English Emily Russell, who is currently serving as the The Sandspur's faculty adviser, moderated the discussion.
Members of the Rollins community were advised to focus their comments on the issue at hand—that of responsible journalism—and not make speeches based on personal opinions. However, a few students left before the event ended. “It just makes me so sad that people walked away from this experience,” commented Jessica Aubrey (Class of 2012) following the Forum.
The goal of the Forum was “to foster community dialogue to appreciate and understand what college journalism can accomplish,” explained Sandspur Managing Editor Greg Golden (Class of 2011). “We wanted to provide an outlet for the campus to contribute meaningfully to its understanding of the role of free speech on campus.”
Student Government Association Student Life Chair Drew Doty read from a prepared statement: “Student Government supports the opinions of all persons on campus, and we defend their freedom to express said opinions. However, we believe that if these opinions are to be published in a public forum, such as The Sandspur, they need to express well-researched and factual information in their defense.”
The artist who provided the controversial graphic also read a statement to the crowd, but the author of the op-ed did not comment.
The Sandspur has been known to stretch the limits on freedom of speech and responsible journalism throughout its 117 years of existence. As the oldest college newspaper in Florida, The Sandspur has always been a reflection of the news, politics, humor and controversy of the campus. However, there have been several instances in recent history in which published content has caused concern for the Rollins community.
The recent controversial articles were titled "Obama vs. LGBT" and "Illegal Babies Should be Illegal Aliens." Sharply criticized for being poorly researched, one-sided and using inflammatory and sensationalist language, these op-eds incited a reaction from socially and politically active departments, organizations and individuals. In the days that followed publication, two separate campus-wide e-mails in response to the articles were sent by two Rollins faculty members.
Critical Media and Cultural Studies (CMC) Department Chair Lisa Tillmann sent one of the e-mails presenting her department’s stance on the situation. Tillmann described the e-mail as a “means to intervene and prevent additional harm to members of our community who hold one or more targeted minority identities. The week's entire opinion page was written and illustrated by members of dominant groups representing the beliefs, values and experiences of minority groups without consultation with members of those groups and without any counter-perspective. The op-ed discourse relied on stereotypes, and the illustration depicted immigrants in a dehumanizing way. Images can be especially problematic since, unlike text, which humans tend to process consciously and rationally, images impact us in emotional and largely unconscious ways.” The other e-mail was sent on behalf of the department of Graduate Studies in Counseling. These actions in turn generated wider attention to the articles.
A major criticism by students of the two faculty responses is that they used a communication channel in which students cannot fully respond or participate. With the campus e-mail conversion from Groupwise to Outlook in Summer 2010, all students (College of Arts & Sciences, Hamilton Holt School and Crummer Graduate School of Business) are now on the “live” platform, which limits the number of addresses that students may send to at one time. “I was not aware of the disparity of available channels of communication,” commented Tillmann.
The controversy also brought to light new implications of media in the “Digital Age” that must be considered. The Sandspur publishes each issue of its paper online. The articles in question are therefore able to reach world-wide audiences and become a permanent record online. Additionally, hundreds of strongly-worded Web comments, many of which were anonymous, have been made on The Sandspur’s site in the days that followed the articles’ posting.
“I didn’t see anything in the pieces that warranted the type of responses in the comments section on the website,” said Orlando Sentinel Opinions Page Editor Mike Lafferty, who was invited to attend the forum and provide his professional perspective. “It didn’t feel like the kind of nurturing response expected of an institute of higher education.”
Lafferty explained that the editorial staff of newspapers has a responsibility to make judgments about the content that is published on the opinions page. Defending The Sandspur’s action, Lafferty observed that, “the article has a valid view point that is shared by other people. It probably would not have been excluded from the Orlando Sentinel, but it would have been fact-checked and carefully edited.”
By the end of the Forum, ideas on how to improve the media on campus were being formulated. Sam Reiser (Class of 2012), a former professional photo journalist, challenged the Rollins community to “discuss what we would like our campus media to look like and how we are going to support it.” The topics of a general lack of funding and educational opportunities for campus media were discussed. Communications professionals have advised the paper for nearly a decade, and have brought in reporters, editors and designers from the Orlando Sentinel and other local media outlets to discuss with the students the role of a responsible journalist. However, a journalism class has not been offered as part of the curriculum since 2008. There was a general agreement among students, faculty and staff that improving the quality of journalism and media on campus needs to be a priority and that it cannot be accomplished without the support of the entire Rollins community.
Sandspur Editor-in-Chief Nick Zazulia (Class of 2011) was happy with the outcome of the Forum. “Both the turnout and passion exhibited here today were exceptional. I hope it continues where we left off and can be the starting point for future dialogue and not the end of the conversation.”
Described as a “teachable moment,” The Sandspur's Forum proved to be one of the most exciting and significant events this semester. “The state of campus media is a shared responsibility of everyone at Rollins,” commented Tillmann. “The Sandspur is an important venue for campus discourse and the community must pledge to increase its contribution to the discussion.”
By Justin Braun (Class of 2011 MBA), former editor-in-chief of The Sandspur
Note: Freedom of speech and freedom of the press refer to the government's inability to restrict the expression of ideas or the public debate about public affairs.
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