Illinois Student Newspaper Editors Suspended for Running the Danish Cartoons:

A Statement from the Publisher in the latest Daily Illini says:

A student task force has been formed by the Illini Media board of directors and the company's publisher to investigate the internal decision-making and communication surrounding the publishing of The Daily Illini Opinions Page of Thursday, Feb. 9.

The student staff in The Daily Illini newsroom has questioned in print and in meetings the manner in which Editor in Chief Acton Gorton and Opinions Editor Chuck Prochaska produced the page. While the task force convenes for approximately two weeks, these two editors have been suspended, and Managing Editors Shira Weissman and Jason Koch will serve together as interim editor in chief.

The board and publisher reaffirm that final decisions about content in The Daily Illini rest with the editor in chief. But the board and publisher also recognize that journalistic norms regarding professional behavior dictate that it is the editor's obligation to engage other student editors and student staff members in rigorous discussion and debate of sensitive content.

Mary Cory
Publisher and General Manager
Illini Media Co.

The Daily Illini is an independent nonprofit in which the ultimate decisionmaking authority is in the hands of the publisher and an eight-member board, which consists of four students and four faculty members.

I'm pretty sure there's no constitutional problem here; the board of directors of a nonprofit publication is entitled to ultimately control what the publication publishes, and to control who gets to make the daily decisions about such matters. That some of the board of directors members are faculty at a public university doesn't change the matter; I don't believe they're acting in their official capacity, and, even if they were speaking for the university so that the newspaper were a university-controlled organ, the university would generally be entitled to dictate what is published in the media that it controls. (A public university is not entitled to dictate what is published in privately owned student newspapers; but here either the newspaper is private and controlled by a board of directors acting in its private capacity, or [less likely] it would be seen as being controlled by faculty members acting as public officials, in which case it's no longer really quite private.)

Nonetheless, one can certainly question whether the board of directors decision is sound. The cartoons are extremely newsworthy; to understand the worldwide events of the last several weeks, people have to be able to see the cartoons. They are indeed easily available online, but it certainly makes sense that a paper publication would want to make them instantly available to its readers, rather than providing a link that they hope their readers will eventually plug into a browser.

The strongest defense I can see of the Board's decision is if indeed the editor's decision violated traditional consultative norms of the Daily Illini editorial process. If the Daily Illini had indeed generally been run on a principle that, before any "sensitive content" (e.g., potentially offensive criticism of Christianity, material that some readers might find vulgar, and so on) is published, the editor must "engage other student editors and student staff members in rigorous discussion and debate" of the subject, then an editor's departure from this norm might be seen as an undue arrogation of decisionmaking authority. I don't think that there are any general "journalistic norms" requiring such consultation — a dictatorial editorial model is perfectly within journalistic norms, it seems to me (with some possible exceptions that are not applicable here). But if there are such norms at the Daily Illini, the Board may reasonably insist that the norms continue to be followed, to protect a decisionmaking process that it finds valuable.

I'd love to know more about this procedural justification that the Board is giving. Do any readers know more details on what actually happened here, and what Daily Illini practice has been? Has the Board made more detailed statements on the subject? Are the Illini's own "journalistic standards" available somewhere? Here is what one of the suspended editors says (I quote from a Chicago Tribune article on the controversy):

Acton Gorton, 25, said he believes he made a sound journalistic decision in running six of the cartoons because the public has a right to judge their content. He said he consulted with top staff members and journalism instructors before making the decision to publish them in Thursday's newspaper.
Here's the contrary view:
[O]n Monday, the paper ran an editorial apologizing for Gorton's decision and called the move "a blatant abuse of power" by a "renegade editor who firmly believes that his will is also the will of the paper."

The task force will study whether Gorton made his decision in a vacuum that was improper according to the Illini's journalistic standards, written in 1947.

Thanks to reader Mark Deming for the pointer.