I feel lucky The Badger Herald has employees like Design Director Gus McNair, whose commitment to free speech principles is so steadfast he’s willing to publicly challenge the final decision I made to pull a comic by Vincent Cheng. But I stand by the decision I made along with my two lieutenants, Pamela Selman and Katherine Krueger.
Editors of college newspapers like the Herald, which has been at the center of many unnecessary and preventable campus-wide controversies before and throughout my time here, often have to take a lesser-of-two-evils approach to those ethical decisions.
McNair is right to point out the comic strip we pulled was not that offensive. As a loyal listener of Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, I can admit to being part of the Pitchfork-influenced demographic Cheng ridiculed in his strip.
But with apologies to Cheng, who is a fine person and a talented artist, I did not feel like wasting the opportunity for a real conversation about race, entertainment or anything else on a relatively meaningless comic strip.
Twenty years ago, the Herald printed a series of socially-insightful strips by Mark Lysgard that criticized the use of American Indian stereotypes in sports franchise naming. The strip depicted the Cleveland Indian and what was labeled a “sambo” figure in several panels, prompting an outrage from campus groups who eventually protested in the Herald’s office.
The Herald’s Editor-in-Chief at the time, Jodi Cohen, responded to the incident with a thoughtful letter in late April 1993 that said “any reasonable reader will understand Lysgard’s message.” But the controversy continued as readers continued to misinterpret the strip, even though Lysgard asked the community: “When will Native Americans be given human rights, instead of mascot rights?”
Protests from the student groups made it into the pages of The Milwaukee Journal (RIP) and The Chicago Tribune after Cohen’s letter explained the strip to readers who had misunderstood it. Lysgard’s meaningful message about the hypocrisy of bigotry and hate became lost in a sea of groups who directed their ire at the Herald instead of the institutions who created the stereotypes. Cohen didn’t apologize, and the administration weighed in to say they supported the Herald’s press freedom.
This tradition has continued as the Herald has moved from its ideological beginnings as a conservative newspaper and into its current incarnation, as a moderate student newspaper with independent libertarian ideals. Under Editor-in-Chief Julie Bosman’s watch, the Herald ran an ad by conservative commentator David Horowitz that argued for ten reasons why the United States should not fulfill reparations for slavery. The campus became the focal point of a necessary and important discussion about free speech and academic freedom despite the fringe view the advertisement promoted.
Several years later, a campuswide furor erupted when the Herald continued running an advertisement that denied the Holocaust. That time, Editor-in-Chief Jason Smathers said the University of Wisconsin community was mature enough to handle the ad’s despicable message and reject it.
Bosman and Smathers both set precedents that would have led me to the same decisions in their respective cases. They were staunch defenders of the First Amendment and the virtues of academic freedom.
But Cheng is not David Horowitz. He is much more like Mark Lysgard, a well-intentioned and socially conscious comic strip artist whose work risks misinterpretation. Where Horowitz’s intentions were explicit and targeted, Cheng’s were open-ended and harmless. Readers easily could have misinterpreted its message of a young white person’s façade of social consciousness as an indictment of the black community just as much as they could have seen it as an indictment of the hipsters he was ridiculing.
Cheng did not sign up for the slim chance of innocently igniting one of those campuswide controversies when he became a comic artist. As an editor, it is my responsibility not just to edit content but also to serve as the lightning rod for the decisions we make. Cheng does not carry that burden.
In this instance, I suspect we’ll continue to receive criticism for avoiding controversy and capitulating to the demands of a group of fringe radicals on campus who have a history of storming our offices.
Previous editors of the Herald have insisted the community is mature enough to handle even unintentionally offensive content. I agree with that principle. But in less consequential cases, such as the one surrounding this comic strip, I believe the lesser of two evils is to save any potential free speech debate for the kind of content that demands it instead of letting the small percentage of students who misinterpret the work we do hold us hostage.
That is why we can’t have nice things.
Ryan Rainey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in journalism and Latin American studies.