- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

It’s safe to say neither Galileo nor John Scopes would have fared well as students in the University of Illinois’ College of Communications. And H.L. Mencken almost certainly wouldn’t have lasted a full day as editor of the student newspaper The Daily Illini.

By order of College Dean Roland Yates and the newspaper’s board of directors, the First Amendment has been spiked in favor of political correctness. Two Daily Illini editors were fired from their jobs March 21 for printing six Danish cartoons satirically depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

It would be difficult to argue that the cartoons were not newsworthy since their original publication in a small Copenhagen newspaper sparked riots and loss of life throughout the Muslim world earlier this year.

How can readers of The Daily Illini or any other U.S. newspaper, for that matter, understand what those riots were all about — and judge their appropriateness or inappropriateness — without viewing the cartoons?

Yet with its publication of the six cartoons Feb. 9, The Daily Illini joined only a handful of American dailies with enough guts to show their readers what triggered one of the major news stories of 2006. Among the other staunch defenders of free expression: the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Austin American-Statesman and the Rocky Mountain News.

The firings came after complaints by some Muslim students that the cartoons were anti-Muslim and disrespectful of Islam.

Daily Illini Editor-in-chief Acton H. Gorton, fired along with the paper’s op-ed editor Charles Prochaska, said he intends to sue the newspaper’s board for defamation and unlawful dismissal.

Mr. Gorton, a 25-year-old journalism major, accused the paper’s board of directors of terminating him for doing nothing more than exercising his free speech rights. He said he was given 30 minutes to explain his actions at a closed-door of the Illini board, but used only 10 and was asked no questions. “They just sat and stared at me,” he said. Mr. Gorton also complained he never was allowed to meet with a task force created to study the issue after he printed the cartoons.

The board, which includes both students and faculty, voted unanimously to fire Mr. Gorton and Mr. Prochaska for violating “Daily Illini policies about thoughtful discussion and preparation for the publication of inflammatory material.”

Ironically, its statement continued: “the board believes this conclusion is in the best interests of The Daily Illini newsroom and will allow the student journalists to carry on with the newspaper’s 135-year-old tradition of a vibrant, independent student press.” How’s that again?

When I was a student journalist at the University of Florida a few decades back, every professor on the staff hammered it home that a vibrant, independent press begins and ends with the right to free expression. As a reporter in the ‘70s, an independent press was the key to freedom of the press.

That was a cardinal principle of the Founding Fathers, and it was never meant to bow before threats and intimidation. Today’s journalism schools, unfortunately, seem to have abandoned the sacred precepts of our Bill of Rights.

Instead of teaching the First Amendment, they now spend their time on sensitivity training. In doing so, they conjure up the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw’s famous dictum: “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.”

Hopefully, those who graduate from the University of Illinois’ College of Communications this year will ignore the messages of their weak-minded professors and go on to become vibrant, independent journalists on their own.

As for Mr. Gorton and Mr. Prochaska, they should be invited to the next National Press Club Newsmakers Luncheon as honored guests and given a standing ovation.

James Martin is president of the 60 Plus Association, a grass-roots seniors’ group headquartered in Arlington, Va.

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