Forum addresses uproar over Eastern Echo comic

“A Forum on Values and Respect” took place on Thursday to discuss an Eastern Echo comic depicting two members of the KKK. Opinions at the gathering weighed the offensiveness of the comic against free speech rights.

Eastern Michigan University held a panel discussion and open forum entitled “Our Learning Community: A Forum on Values and Respect” this past Thursday in the Student Center Ballroom to discuss a comic printed in The Eastern Echo.

The discussion generated from a comic by Eastern Echo cartoonist Jason Promo printed in the Sept. 28 issue of the Echo. The comic depicted two members of the Ku Klux Klan, one male and one female, standing in front of a tree with a noose with the caption, “Honey, this is the tree where we met.”

According to Promo, the comic was meant to show the hypocrisy of the KKK and questioned how someone could be affectionate toward one person and hate another so much.

The comic sparked controversy and debate among students and faculty around EMU’s campus.

Many classrooms held discussions, and a video was uploaded onto Youtube.com by EMU junior Ivory Harris. The video showed Harris speaking about the comic, quoting the statement submitted on behalf of the Eastern Echo about the comic and then claiming “We have read your apology and this is what we think of it.” Harris then proceeded to throw away a stack of Eastern Echo newspapers.

According to Harris, “the video was never intended as a way to protest to ban the Echo, but to put EMU officials in a position to respond quickly to the matter and take us serious.”

Harris first heard about the comic through some of his peers, coworkers and a member of the NAACP.

“My first thought was ‘Why would the Echo allow this to be published?’ It’s not socially relevant to anything going on in the world or on campus, so it’s uncalled for,” he said.

The forum was hosted by Provost Jack Kay, who was informed of the comic through e-mails from several faculty staff expressing their concerns. “The forum was put together quickly to try to balance everything quickly,” Kay said.

Kay hoped through the forum people would “realize people interpret symbols differently than others and that symbols have a great deal of power,” he said.

The forum consisted of four panelists: Kevin Devine, director of student media; Martin Shichtman, professor of history; Mary Ann Watson, professor of communications and Ronald Woods, professor of African-American studies.

Each gave brief educational lessons all somehow relating to the Echo comic.

Devine spoke first and explained not only his role within the Eastern Echo, but how decisions are made, which is not in his authority to control.

“I am not allowed to see the paper until the day it is printed like everyone else,” Devine said.

Devine also spoke on the value of free speech and open and free communication but also commented he has always expressed the idea that “just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.”

He also addressed the comic and the many responses including “it wasn’t even funny,” to which he responded some comics are created to try to illicit opinion or reaction and is open to multiple interpretations.

Shichtman spoke next, first showing a slideshow giving the history of the swastika from its creation in 9,500 B.C. to its infamous connection to Nazi Germany.

Shichtman then proceeded to relate this information to a picture in a tabloid of Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales with a swastika band on his arm at a party.

Shichtman went on to give a brief historical lesson on the KKK and the images associated with the group and the purpose of bringing terror and intimidation in these images.

Next, Watson spoke, beginning by saying that “the language of the event implied hate speech and intent,” which in her opinion was untrue but instead implies “civil thinking.”

Watson spoke on the importance and necessity of free speech but also said the comic was a “painfully naïve attempt.”

“This situation can’t really be resolved, because democracy and free speech is messy, [this forum was for] people to express their opinions and hear other’s opinions and adjust your own thoughts,” Watson said.

The last panelist, Ronald Woods, addressed the history of lynching and its relation to the comic.

Woods called the comic “disturbingly accurate” and that it is “an example of the lack of essence of grappling with the meaning of our history.”

Later, after all of the panelists had finished, there was a chance for comments from the audience. Some members of the audience seemed to be in support of the comic, feeling it wasn’t offensive, others were extremely upset about the comic and some disagreed with the comic but supported the idea of free speech.

After the forum officially ended, some students still seemed to be very upset about the comic and continued to discuss it with the panelists.

Promo came and discussed the comic with the students. The discussion was mediated by Woods.

The students spent two hours expressing to Promo the type of emotions they felt from the comic and why it was offensive to them. Promo explained the comic’s intent was not at all to be racially insensitive.

The discussion ended in a student asking Promo “what did you learn from all of this?” and Woods turned to ask all of the students “and what did all of you learn from this?”

Woods believed the students’ discussion with Promo helped, and that the next step for this situation is an internal dialogue with the Eastern Echo.

There are plans for more forums on campus, including a forum to define and discuss free speech in November.


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