As roughly 65 members of the university community poured into a White-Gravenor classroom on Dec. 15 to discuss Georgetown Heckler articles deemed racially insensitive, the role and voice of student publications was once again put into question on the Hilltop.
At the two-hour community forum, then-Heckler Editor in Chief Jack Stuef (COL ’10) explained that the satirical writing, which appeared in the online publication’s December edition, served the purpose of highlighting existing racism on campus.
“As a Catholic and a Jesuit institution we are called to a higher standard,” Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson wrote in an e-mail read aloud by Frances Dávila (SFS ’10), the co-chair of MEChA who acted as a facilitator at the community forum. “We place great importance on open dialogue and free exchange of ideas, but offensive and inaccurate language does nothing to further this mission.”
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., director of campus ministry, affirmed Olson’s sentiments.
“To paraphrase John Henry Cardinal Newman, and to echo what [University] President [John J.] DeGioia has said on other occasions, the best response to controversial speech is more speech,” O’Brien said. “So those offended and hurt by the Heckler’s attempt at satire should voice their views in a respectful, productive, articulate manner.”
He added that productive discussions had taken place within the community following the Heckler’s most recent issue.
“I was pleased with the level of honest, respectful discourse at Tuesday night’s forum,” O’Brien said.
Georgetown NAACP Chapter Representative Jheanelle Brown (SFS ’10) said that while she was upset by the most recent issue of the Heckler, she feels that satirical writing does not always have to play a negative role.
She cited THE HOYA’s April Fools’ issue last April as another example of satire gone awry.
“Satire would have a productive role on campus if it was executed correctly,” Brown wrote in an e-mail. “And that was the problem with THE HOYA’s April Fools’ issue last year and this article from the Heckler. For the Heckler, I think that they feel insulated [and] because they are writing under the guise of satire/humor, they go too far.”
Brown added that she does not feel that writers at the Heckler are individually racists.
“I don’t think that the writers (from what I can discern) are racist. That should be made clear,” Brown wrote in an e-mail.
Brown said that she does not believe the apology from Stuef was sufficient, however.
“Jack Stuef, former [editor-in- chief], issued an apology to those who responded to the situation. I don’t believe it was sincere,” Brown wrote in an e-mail. “So a sincere (public) apology would be great. And a commitment to engaging in constructive dialogue in the future.”
This campus-wide discussion occurs in the wake of a series of questions pertaining to bias in journalistic coverage, satirical or otherwise, posed to the university community in recent years.
In March 2001, The Georgetown Academy, “Georgetown’s Independent Journal of Faith and Reason,” which had previously received criticism for insensitive commentary, published an article that referred to students as “Alex Sanspenis, Christian Genderless and La Gordita.” The article’s publication and the reaction from many members of the university community later led to the public resignation of an Academy staff member and a call from Georgetown University Student Association for an apology from publication.
In September 2007, THE HOYA also received criticism for its insufficient attention to the Jena Six – a group of black high school students in Louisiana who many deemed were subjected to racial injustice. An on-campus protest of the incident had received less coverage than the ongoing debate of the university’s alcohol policy in an issue that fall.
Reactions to these incidents permeated campus culture; in the aftermath of the April Fools’ issue, THE HOYA faced sanctions from the Media Board and the publication’s efforts at independence were halted.
In a November 2002 letter to the editor published in THE HOYA, following the Academy incident, then-Vice President for Student Affairs Juan Gonzalez affirmed the need for dialogue in response to debates about free speech on the Georgetown campus.
“Georgetown has a strong, clear speech and expression policy,” Gonzalez wrote. “More speech, not less, has always been the most tangible method of fostering these principles. Suppression of the free exchange of ideas would violate the very spirit of our policy.”
In an e-mail sent to the campus community Wednesday, University President John J. DeGioia wrote, “Mocking the history of oppression of others is not funny, does not build community and does not reflect well on those who engage in it. We often cannot know how our words or deeds can hurt one another – how such an act can bring back into another’s consciousness an experience of a previous injustice or indignity.”
“The critique that has unfolded in response to [the April Fools’ issue of THE HOYA and the most recent issue of the Heckler] has been responsible, respectful and fitting for an academic community that is committed to the free exchange of ideas,” DeGioia wrote.
Existing groups on campus, particularly the Student Commission for Unity, seek to address issues at Georgetown that relate to diversity.
According to SCU’s Web site, “[Georgetown students, upon entering the university,] become aware of prejudices they didn’t know they had, or they develop prejudices in communities that reinforce them. The [SCU] is dedicated to the pursuit of truth in identifying and reconciling those problems at Georgetown through institutionally approved research and grassroots advocacy uniting students with faculty, staff and administrators.”
Steuf and Brian Kesten, chairman of the SCU, declined to comment.”