The outcry over University of Colorado student Max Karson's latest offense-generator, a February 18 opinion piece for CU's online Campus Press titled "If It's War the Asians Want...," has spawned more than just hysterical headlines and blogosphere blather. In reacting to fallout from the essay, CU came close to placing the Press under some measure of faculty control — a move that could have triggered a First Amendment lawsuit university lawyers weren't sure they could win.
Administrators eventually edged away from this precipice and are now trying to find less legally problematic ways of preventing another Karson-like uproar in the future — moves spelled out in a March 3 internal memo that calls for the creation of three committees to deal with the Press. Posturing and power plays continue behind the scenes, though, and so does a de facto investigation into the entire matter that Press advisor Amy Herdy fears could cause even more damage if not handled carefully.
"The entire process needs to be transparent," says Herdy, who's presently fending off attacks from assorted critics, including four former Press editors who feel very differently about her than do their successors. "When you start having secret processes and secret meetings and you start pulling students aside, it fractures cohesiveness and pulls down morale. This isn't just a class. It's a newsroom."
True enough — and Paul Voakes, dean of CU's journalism department, believes that these twin identities make dealing with the Karson affair exceedingly tricky. "It's a pretty goofy situation," he says. "You've got a student newspaper that has evolved into a culture of editorial independence by virtue of 27 years of doing things that way. And yet it's still within the school curriculum."
As a result of this awkward setup, Herdy, who previously worked for the Denver Post and Channel 9, must walk the finest of lines. Students are required to take her course to work as Press staffers, but she can't read, edit or influence the site's content under the code of ethics developed by College Media Advisers, the standard-setting organization for college newspapers. Individuals who've castigated Herdy for approving "If It's War..." apparently don't understand that she was precluded from seeing it beforehand, and she says she didn't — an assertion confirmed by Press editor Cassie Hewlings and assistant managing editor Ashleigh Oldland.
For his part, Karson declined to comment for this column, as did his attorney, Dan Williams, who first represented him in April 2007, when he was arrested after making statements in a CU class following that month's massacre at Virginia Tech. Karson, whose record will be wiped clean if he stays out of legal trouble for a year, reportedly said he could understand why someone might want to kill 32 people, since he was upset about all kinds of things, including fluorescent lightbulbs.
These remarks were intended as satire, just like an attention-getting 2006 offering about the "myth of the female orgasm" that appeared in the Yeti, Karson's self-published newsletter. "If It's War..." aimed for solidarity with minority students using a similar technique — but his decision to portray himself as a newborn racist who wants to force standoffish Asians to participate in a 100-round beer-pong tournament angered rather than amused readers from a wide variety of backgrounds.
CU reacted to the subsequent clamor by hosting a February 27 public forum and supplementing its website with apologetic letters from the likes of Voakes and Herdy. In addition, Press leaders suspended the opinion page in lieu of a section reorganization and agreed to attend diversity-related training sessions.
Plenty more took place out of the public eye, at a closed-door faculty meeting held prior to the forum. (Campus Press representatives were told they could sit in for the last part of the get-together, but neither they nor Herdy were allowed to do so, supposedly because the executive-session portion ran late.) Opinions among attendees about what to do "ran the entire gamut," Voakes says — from free-speech absolutists to those who wanted to decrease the site's independence to avert future catastrophes. Voakes, who'd planned to announce the faculty's proposals for the Press at the forum, doesn't reveal the majority's verdict. Still, he says that when he got to the part of his address "about how much faculty control there would be on the content," he balked about including it because "I hadn't run it by the university counsel's office to make sure what we were doing was within our rights, especially as it concerned the issues of prior restraint of student expression."
Within days, Voakes got his answer. "It was pretty unambiguous," he says. "They felt that somebody could make a very compelling case for unconstitutional prior restraint or censorship on the part of the school" if the faculty suddenly began insisting upon pre-approving content — and he admits that a Press rebellion might well have followed. "So," he continues, "it was clear to us that we weren't going to go there."
Hence, Voakes set up another meeting on March 3 — and this time, Herdy and Press reps such as Oldland were invited. The first draft of a memo about the gathering, penned by Voakes, pledges to study "whether the Campus Press should operate independently from the school's curriculum" — a shift that would distance CU from dust-ups and erase ambiguity about responsibility for content.
In addition, the draft outlines the formation of an "editorial policy group" to "assist the Campus Press in the formulation of new editorial standards, particularly regarding opinions policy, as well as the revision of its ethics code" and a "faculty sounding board" that would "make itself available to students for consultation on upcoming articles or feedback on articles already published" — duties that sound very much like Herdy's job description. Finally, the memo notes that a "faculty task force" would be asked to "conduct an investigation into the decisions that led to the hiring of Max Karson" and the publication of "If It's War..." and "No Hablo Ingles," a column by Press scribe Lauren Geary. Voakes points out that the word "investigation" was changed in later drafts for fear that it sounded too "legalistic and punitive." It now says that the task force has been asked to "learn more about" the Karson hiring et al.
Will these additional layers of bureaucracy have a chilling effect on Press independence? Herdy and Oldland don't think so. For one thing, the memo twice emphasizes that the activities of the various groups "will not involve any form of prior restraint." For another, consultation with the editorial-policy group and the faculty-sounding board is voluntary. "They're there if we need them," Oldland says, "but we don't have to use their advice."
Ignoring the faculty task force will be more difficult. Given that the Press has already published an article detailing what went on, its mission seems simple — but finger-pointing and blame-casting is muddying the water. On February 26, for example, Luke Morin, Maggie McDermott, Emily Tienken and Justin Kutner, all of whom were editors at the Press when Herdy took over as advisor during the fall 2007 semester, circulated an e-mail throughout the journalism department accusing her of engaging in everything from unprofessional communication to "editorial totalitarianism."
Herdy calls the e-mail the most hurtful event that happened in the wake of the Karson column — even worse than accusations of racism that ignore a journalism career filled with articles championing minority causes. She categorically denies the editors' allegations, just as Kutner rejects suggestions that the e-mailers' complaints are more about ax-grinding and settling old scores than substantive issues.
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Meanwhile, Herdy's got the enthusiastic backing of current Press editors: Both Hewlings and Oldland call her the best advisor they've ever had. Support for her and Voakes among faculty members isn't as universal; the dean is up for review in April, and Herdy thinks politically motivated rivals are trying to use the Karson mess to undermine his position. She hopes he survives such maneuvering and is able to set the Press free, since, in her view, independence is the best way for the publication to move forward.
Numerous instructors disagree, as Herdy concedes. In a debate with a colleague who wants the faculty to exert greater control, "I said, 'They didn't sign up to be censored or restricted or reined in,'" Herdy recalls. "'That horse is out of the barn.'"
And Max Karson is holding the door.