Smothering Free Speech: Student editors' suspensions reveal a worrisome mindset

April 2005

Those who defend press freedom do not always get to choose their battlefields. And, sadly, the University of Calgary's Gauntlet saga -- in which an ill-advised decision to publish a sexually explicit picture led to the suspension of two of the newspaper's staff -- is a silly business.

Editor Ben Li allowed publication of full frontal nudity to illustrate an article with the excruciatingly bland headline, "Staying abreast of sexual awareness." It was gratuitous and in bad taste and the angry reaction was to be expected. But should he have expected suspension? And should the Gauntlet itself expect the semi-serious attempts made upon its life by groups demanding the Students' Union withdraw funding?

The university press is like any other newspaper, but writ small. They and the most well-established names in journalism confront the same issues, deal with the same dilemmas.

There is the same public interest in a press that asks tough questions those in authority don't want voiced, never mind answered.

So, what great public interest did the Gauntlet serve with its intimate image of Honey Houston?

None, unfortunately. But it easily could have. After all, what was the Students' Union doing by hiring strippers for its Sexual Awareness Week, if not engaging in gratuitous bad taste?

So, it was too bad Gauntlet news editor Dale Miller's story began, "Performers for the Sexual Health Awareness Show discovered assless chaps are, in fact, not allowed in MacEwan Student Centre . . ."

Had he led off, "You trusted your Students' Union with your money, and here's what they're doing with it . . ." he'd have had a valid point of considerable interest to the student body, the picture would have been relevant, and it would be the SU in the hot seat right now, not him and Li. Instead of informing, the Gauntlet merely offended. But, there is something deeply wor- risome about the campus response. Universities are supposed to be bastions of tolerance and free thinking.

Yet, when somebody is offended, it's "off with their heads," close down that rag, and have the student government suspend the editors, as though free expression is available only to those with acceptable thoughts.

Will future editors be disciplined if they offend feminists? Gays? Straights? Muslims? Jews? For reporting the words of a campus speaker who offends all of them in one speech?

Those who presume to muzzle newspapers and establish themselves as arbiters of acceptable speech should consider how ideas fall in and out of favour: They may be in the saddle today, under the horses' hooves tomorrow, with only the right to free expression to break their fall.

Li and Miller have a thing or two to learn about newspapering. But, they're probably teachable.

For the sake of the country's future, and against all the evidence, we'd like to believe the same of the people now howling for their blood.