When I wrote a column about contraceptive use by American women for the Seminole Community College newspaper, The Scribe, it occurred to me that I might offend a few people. What I didn't expect was that college administrators would be so put off by language like "stupid bitches," "damn" and "ass" that they would threaten to kill the newspaper and drag its staff into a five-day battle over freedom of speech.
For those of you who are not nursing your traumatized sensibilities, I'll continue.
As I researched my column, which was scheduled to be published last week, I came across statistics that caught me by surprise; namely that 5 percent of American women in their fertile years who don't want to get pregnant nonetheless refuse to use contraceptives of any kind. What possible reason could there be for not wanting to protect oneself?
I asked, and answered, the question in my column, and that's when the trouble started.
Betty Porter, faculty advisor to The Scribe, took the column to college administrators before it went to press. I met with Porter and Randy Pawlowski, director of student activities. They made it clear that while they didn't object to the issue raised by my column, the use of profanity was over the line. The Scribe would not go to press, they said, until the column was cleaned up.
But editor-in-chief Margaret Acker decided it was time to make a stand. Acker refused to remove the profanity, based on the principle of editorial autonomy. As a backup she got a letter from The Student Press Law Center in Virginia stating that she was within her rights to exercise complete control over the editorial content of the paper.
The media doesn't take freedom of the press issues lightly. Within a day the censorship of The Scribe became the center of a small publicity explosion. Some saw the controversy as a free-speech issue. Others thought we were trying to protect our right to use profanity. Even now I wonder whether we would have won the battle if school administrators weren't faced with this media blitz.
At The Scribe staff meeting Sept. 18, Acker insisted that the paper would go to press as is or not at all. Pawlowski and Porter countered that because of the "obscene" nature of my writing, going to press without changes would embarrass the school and my journalism colleagues.
Dr. Hank Hurley, director of student success services, tried to broker a compromise. Hurley suggested removing some of the words and considered convening a body of local journalists to help make the decision. Acker stood firm, however, saying that both suggestions compromised the rights of the students. So another meeting came and went without a resolution, and we were left to see what the administration would do next.
We didn't have to wait long. On Sept. 19, administrators released a statement saying they were giving in. "It is not in the best interests of the College to generate a prolonged, controversial dispute over this student learning issue. Therefore, publication of this edition of The Scribe will move forward ... "
We won, but victory was not without a price. Although most of the paper's staff agreed that we should not make the attempted censorship a personal matter, we still have to deal with the broken trust between the editorial staff and Porter.
Everyone involved has learned a valuable lesson, that the student newspaper is for the students; silencing the voices of students, no matter how "obscene," should never be tolerated.
In retrospect what angers me the most is that Pawlowski and Porter weren't on our side. Protecting the rights of the students should have been their priority. Instead we were met with major opposition and a willingness on the part of administration to silence speech they didn't agree with.
Some at The Scribe still think my use of offensive language was wrong. However, I refuse to accept the notion that there is only one true form of expression, and I won't censor myself because there are people out there who are too narrow-minded to see that freedom of speech is just as valuable as their right to disagree.
Robin Mimna also works as an intern at Orlando Weekly
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