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Obama Cartoon Controversy: Community College Student Newspapers Under Attack by Governing Board, Says Scottsdale Faculty Member

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Controversy over an editorial cartoon that some say makes President Obama look like a monkey is blowing up into a fight over control of student newspapers at local community colleges.

At a Tuesday meeting of the Maricopa Community College District Governing Board, "all but one" member of the five-person panel "decided that all student newspapers in the district needed to allow the board to control content in the future," says an e-mail (pasted below) by the journalism director of Scottsdale Community College. Board member Don Campbell (pictured below) apparently opposes the idea.

One of the ringleaders in this alleged takeover plot is newly elected board member Debra Pearson, the lawmaker formerly known as Debra Brimhall who once proposed to put limits on how many years news reporters could work. She took her husband's name after their Rennaissance-themed wedding (pictured at right), but it sounds like she hasn't ditched her right-wing, anti-news-media  views.

Julie Knapp, who also serves as advisor to the Chronicle, the Scottsdale college's student newspaper, calls for supporters of First Amendment rights to observe the situation and be prepared to descend en masse to an upcoming governing board meeting.

The hullabulloo began after a cartoon by Scranton Times-Tribune artist John Cole was published around the country, including in the Chronicle on February 11, Knapp says. Though that cartoon produce mild controversy, making the situation even worse is that people have confused it with the now-infamous Obama-as-chimp cartoon printed by the New York Post. (See both cartoons below).

New Times put in a call this morning to Pete Kushibab, the community college district's general counsel, who tells us he needs to refer the request for comment to the district's spokesperson. We'll publish another post if the district comments on Knapp's complaints.

Text of Knapp e-mail follows:

Hello friends. I hope this email finds you well. I apologize in advance for the long note. Just wanted to give you the facts on what we are facing.

We could use any support you can bring to bear to protect press freedoms for college journalists.

A cartoon that ran in our Scottsdale Chronicle Feb. 11 edition shows Obama climbing a small mountain to the presidency then facing a much larger one of expectations. It is called "The Ascent" by John Cole: http://community.thetimes-tribune.com/blogs/johncole/archive/2009/01/21/the-ascent.aspx. It was drawn in honor of the inauguration and ran in his paper, the Scranton Times-Tribune, without a complaint, we have been told. We pay a small fee to Cagle Cartoons to use their syndicated cartoonists after the cartoons run in their original newspapers. It wasn't until the NY Post cartoon came out a week after the Cole cartoon ran in our campus paper that we received an email complaint. The complainant then attached the NY Post cartoon (now referred to as the Chimp cartoon) to an email sent to all African-American faculty and staff districtwide, the local NAACP members, the local media and many members of other African-American Valley organizations inferring that we ran the NY Post cartoon. Because most of those who received the emails weren't on our campus and we don't carry the cartoons online due to copyright issues, It caused a lot of anger but no one contacted us directly so that we could straighten it out. Some people contacted the Governing Board to complain even though they had not seen the cartoon we really ran.

We aren't making excuses for the Cole cartoon. Once people are told that the cartoon we ran makes Obama look like a monkey, then they see it and we understood how some could be offended, especially in light of the NY Post cartoon. Because of the NY Post cartoon, most media are now rethinking how to handle editorial cartoons about Obama, including the Chronicle. We have had great dialogs about the difficult topic of race portrayals in all of society on our campus because of this and have been trying to move forward --- until last night.

Our newspaper appeared on the MCCCD Governing Board agenda for last night (March 10) and two editors and I went. We were led to believe that it was probably just going to be a summation of action taken to dialog with those offended. Instead, all but one of the board members (Don Campbell) decided that all student newspapers in the district needed to allow the board to control content in the future. They didn't feel like the Chronicle had any kind of guidance and wondered if the other district student newspapers operate the same way. The board has trouble understanding the difference between "guidance/adviser" and "control." We were not allowed to speak during all of this. When the Chronicle was discussed, board member Debra Pearson went on a diatribe of how terrible today's media is and how they (the governing board) need to take control of all of the campus newspapers because we are all just a bunch of tabloid journalists. Board member Randolph Lumm kept talking about how there was no oversight for the college newspaper. The worst was when they asked Pete Kushibab, district counsel, if they had a right to take control of the newspaper content and he said they did but that most colleges in the nation choose not to do so. Pete didn't explain why and the board didn't ask. The board told all of the presidents that they are to report back to them on how much oversight and control they have over their campus newspapers. There wasn't a date set, but I suspect it will be on the next agenda, Tuesday, March 24.

So, if the newspaper control discussion ends up on the agenda for March 24, we are calling out all of the students, faculty, staff and media interested in standing up for the First Amendment to show up so that people are flowing out the doors of the building. This new governing board (two just took office this year) doesn't understand its limits. It was an incredibly frustrating night, but we have much support from our own administration and faculty. Dr. Jan Gehler, SCC's new president, has been a very strong defender of the newspaper. It's amazing what one person with a districtwide email system and the wrong cartoon can do to damage the press. We'd appreciate your support.

You can access the Governing Board agenda at http://www.maricopa.edu/gvbd/agenda.php. I'll also sent out a note when I hear.

If you would like to contact me, please feel free to do so through this email address, not my work email. I'd be glad to answer further questions. Our spring break is next week, unlike most of yours, so I won't be in the office.

Take care, Julie

Julie Knapp
SCC Chronicle Adviser, Scottsdale Community College Journalism Director

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