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Dan Reimold

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Free Speech, the N-word, and an Orientation Issue Come to a Head at NC State

Posted: 07/13/11 08:37 PM ET

The second college media controversy of the summer centered on an orientation issue has surfaced at North Carolina State University. According to a Student Press Law Center report, NC State administrators first temporarily pulled and then later covered up a portion of a student news magazine that innocently contains a racial epithet.

Late last week, school officials removed a student-produced pub called Brick from the bags set to be distributed to incoming students visiting as part of an orientation program. The reason: the N-word appears in a small portion of a photograph on page 42. Irony alert: The word has been spray-painted onto the walls of the school's famed Free Expression Tunnel, which of course allows students to write (or spray) whatever they want.

A few days later, after some haggling, the school once again began allowing Brick to be included in the bags, but with stickers placed over the N-word in the photo. The stickers are adorned with text hyping a painting event later this semester at the tunnel. So it's a bit of free speech covered up by a promo for free expression.

My take: Sigh. The SPLC report gives off the vibe that the admins. were at least conflicted about the decision, and I give them a sliver of credit for the compromise. But it is still PR overkill. As offensive as the word might be, it apparently is part of the tunnel's reality. Susannah Brinkley, a recent NC State grad. who oversaw Brick's production, told SPLC writer Seth Zweifler, "Whether I agree with it or not, I defend students' right to free speech in the tunnel. I believe that the photo is an accurate representation of the tunnel on any given day."

Glossing over it is just hiding the truth. The truth is that NC State allows these things to be written -- the tunnel is owned and supported by the school. So you either stand for free expression or not. To only support it in a darkened tunnel or unless something controversial appears is not a stellar message to be sending to the incoming class. And members of this very class will apparently see the same thing or something like it in just a few weeks when they're walking through the tunnel on their way to class. My advice: Stage a diversity summit or hold an info session explaining the tunnel's perceived strengths and weaknesses. But don't try to hide the truth. It's offensive to your students.

Finally, to be clear, the magazine is not supporting the word. It is promoting the tunnel in which it was written. As a student newspaper adviser noted on an advisers' list-serv last night: "Talk about shooting the messenger."

And by the way, the first controversy of the summer involving an orientation issue occurred at Southern Methodist University.

 

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