Though the campus may have been quiet over spring break, the University became a battleground for a heated debate on the First Amendment.
Members of the University community bombarded the USM Listserv with angry e-mails regarding a recent decision to stop the Casco Bay Weekly from being delivered to the Woodbury Campus Center. Director of Portland Student Life Helen Gorgas-Goulding made that decision to send a message to CBW, which had recently run a two-part cartoon series featuring a woman being butchered and cooked.
“In case you didn’t know . the thought police are alive and well at USM,” wrote Student Senate Treasurer Justin LaBerge in one e-mail. “While I am sure the cartoon, which I haven’t seen, was inappropriate, it is far from appropriate to ban CBW from campus.”
CBW ran an apology in its March 15 issue admitting the comic strip was pointless.
“Our goal was not to curb free speech, but to support women in the rest of the community who were outraged by the cartoon,” said Gorgas-Goulding. “What happened because of the decision was that the conversation shifted to free speech. In retrospect, I probably would have done things differently.”
In an e-mail message President Richard Pattenaude said the University has a responsibility to respect the First Amendment and a duty to examine ideas, “including those we disagree with or even find abhorrent.”
“This is sometimes a difficult challenge such as in the recent case of vile and disgusting cartoons carried by a local newspaper . ” wrote Pattenaude. “The harsh light of open dialogue and public scrutiny are the means to oppose such trash, not censorship in any form.”
Initially, some faculty and staff members stood behind Gorgas-Goulding’s decision.
“At first I supported her decision,” said Craig Hutchinson, executive assistant to the vice president of Student Development. “I think her heart was in the right place.”
Hutchinson said University lawyers are currently examining the policy that allowed Gorgas-Goulding to prohibit CBW from being delivered to the campus center. The policy allows University officials to approve materials-such as fliers, posters, and newspapers-that are posted in campus space.
Hutchinson said lawyers began examining the policy almost a year ago because there appeared to be some inconsistencies.
“We’re looking at it for consistency and clarity and to make sure it’s not against any laws like freedom of speech,” he said.
Some members of the community have embraced the controversy as a chance to discuss violence against women and the responsibility of the media.
Coordinator of the Women’s Resource Center Beth Martin is working on a conference to do just that on April 17. The conference, titled “What’s the Problem? The Media and Violence Against Women,” will feature a panel discussion with representatives from WGME television, Maine Public Radio, the Portland Press Herald, the Portland Phoenix and CBW.
CBW Publisher Lael Morgan will represent her paper on the panel. She said she’s glad to be participating, especially because there will be other media outlets represented. “I was afraid I was going to be the only one,” she said.
Morgan said she’s willing to discuss the responsibility of the media in relation to covering violence against women, but she believes there are other issues that need to be looked at as well.
“It’s easy to sit around and blame the media,” said Morgan. “Maybe we should look at why Maine has more violence per capita than any other state.”
Martin said one of the goals of the conference is to examine how the media plays a role in the high level of violence in Maine.
Along with the Women’s Resource Center, the conference is being sponsored by Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern and Midcoast Maine, Family Crisis Services and Planned Parenthood.
The conference will be held at 7 p.m. in the Luther Bonney Auditorium, Portland. For more information call 780-5767.
News Editor Steve Peoples can be contacted at: [email protected]