Squelching speech at UNC

Posted: Sep 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Want to know how fast a modern American university can go from championing open debate to squelching it?

     Just ask Jillian Bandes. The University of North Carolina junior wrote a column supporting racial profiling for her campus paper, the Daily Tar Heel. That was Tuesday. By Wednesday afternoon, she was fired. Just like that-- from First Amendment to fireable offense in slightly more than 24 hours. How did it happen?

     The paper’s opinion editor Chris Coletta wrote a column for the Daily Tar Heel Thursday, which included the reasoning for Bandes’ firing:

Some of you called it [the column] racist. Some of you called Bandes’ words a fundamental breach of integrity and journalistic standards. Some of you called for my head, not to mention hers.

But that’s not why Bandes got fired. It happened because she lied to her sources and readers.

Unlike two DTH alumni who resigned from The Reidsville Review this summer, Bandes didn’t inaccurately quote anyone. (I have her notes as proof.)    

     Coletta has notes that prove Bandes quoted her sources accurately, so where’s the lying to sources and readers?

Bandes told the three people quoted in her column — students Sherief Khaki and Muhammad Salameh, as well as professor Nasser Isleem — that she was writing an article about Arab-American relations in a post-9/11 world. …

Racial profiling was, in fact, part of their conversation. But it wasn’t their entire conversation. At no point did Khaki, Salameh or Nasser ever think the only quotes Bandes would use would be their comments on the subject.

     Forgive me if I don’t think this passes the smell test. Bandes was fired just one day after her column ran. She was a one-year veteran of the paper’s staff and former member of the editorial board, but was given no chance to defend herself or apologize before her dismissal. And all this despite the fact that there is proof that she didn’t actually misquote anyone.

     Coletta initially declined to comment for this column, but in a phone interview Thursday night, he said he understands that some conservatives think this was a case of a liberal editor bending to pressure on a liberal campus, but defended his decision to fire Bandes.

     “It’s not a matter of politics,” Coletta said. “It’s a matter of trying to stand up for good journalism….A liberal columnist would have been fired as quickly as Jillian was.”

     He believes that even though Bandes’ quotes were technically accurate, she left out necessary context, thereby misrepresenting her sources.

     Coletta has agreed to run a letter from Bandes defending herself in Friday’s edition of the Daily Tar Heel. Here is her version of the events.


     Bandes said she breached no journalistic ethics and is being punished for writing a controversial column.

     “You can’t say I’m misquoting someone when I quoted them correctly,” Bandes said.

     She interviewed three Arab and Arab-American acquaintances for her column, asking their opinions on racial profiling, among other things. None were enthusiastic about profiling, but said they would be willing to submit to it because it could save American lives, including their own. She quoted them as such.

     She also said her sources knew she was writing about racial profiling, and that she posed the racial profiling question to one source in several different ways during a 10-minute interview.

     “They were pretty receptive. They were very helpful,” she said. “They certainly got the picture.”

     Bandes did not hear directly from her sources, but said Coletta told her they were uncomfortable with their quotes being used in conjunction with some of the hyperbolic phrases Bandes used to get her point across. The placement of the quotes, they said, falsely implied that they agreed with those phrases. In her first line, she wrote, “I want all Arabs to be stripped naked and cavity-searched if they get within 100 yards of an airport.”

     Later, she wrote that she wants Arabs to get “sexed up” in airport security, referring to the aggressive pat-downs passengers are sometimes subject to. Bandes said the column was meant to be “racy,” but not to personally offend her sources. She regrets offending people she cares about—her sources were acquaintances she had met through involvement in her Arabic 101 class and her membership in the Middle Eastern Students Forum—but she doesn’t apologize for supporting racial profiling.

     Her editor liked the tone of the column before it ran, she said.

     “They laughed,” she said, referring to Coletta and editor Ryan Tuck. “They thought it was really funny and well-written.”

     They told her it was a rabble-rousing column that would spark debate, and that’s what Bandes was hired for, she said. She was given a weekly column after serving on the Daily Tar Heel’s editorial board last year. Tuesday’s column was her third of the school year. After a year of being in the political minority on the editorial board, she was excited to let loose on issues she’s passionate about.

     “My goal is to get people talking,” she said. “My editor hired me—he’s told me on many occasions—he hired me for that reason. I was supposed to make noise on the back page.”

     She got people talking, all right. By Wednesday, the column had elicited more than 50 comments in the online feedback section of the Daily Tar Heel. The Muslim Student Association had spoken out about it, and Bandes herself was getting plenty of e-mail—some supportive, some negative, some profane.

     Throughout Tuesday, Coletta stood behind her, despite negative feedback. Tuesday night, Coletta told Bandes he didn’t think she was out of line. On Wednesday at 12:40 p.m., Coletta wrote in the Daily Tar Heel’s editor’s blog:

There's a history of people telling the DTH what it should and shouldn't run -- and I think, for the most part, that's a healthy dialogue. …

But to cut an opinion from our pages because a reader (or 10,000 readers) finds it offensive is to directly assault the marketplace of ideas that serves as the bedrock of the free press. It's also contrary to the mission of the University, which is to challenge conventional wisdom -- and to defeat ideas whose time has passed.

     Sometime between 12:40 p.m. and 4 p.m., the Daily Tar Heel changed its tune. When Bandes heard from her editor Wednesday afternoon, he told her they had been happy to stand behind her until she breached journalistic ethics.

     But Bandes doesn’t think she breached anything. She’s worked as a journalist off and on since high school, when she became a regular contributor for her hometown paper, the St. Petersburg Times. In college she did some reporting before becoming the opinion editor for the University of Miami’s campus paper, The Hurricane. After transferring to UNC, she joined the editorial board of the Daily Tar Heel, where she served for a year before being given a regular column.

     Bandes felt confident in her journalistic integrity, and her knowledge of the opinion page’s standards. Tuesday’s column didn’t cross any lines, according to the Daily Tar Heel’s standards as she understood them, and her editor agreed with her.

     In retrospect, Coletta concedes that he could have toned down some of the language in the column, but said it wasn’t the language that ultimately led to Bandes’ dismissal, but her use of quotes. In the future, he said the use of quotes in Daily Tar Heel columns will be more closely monitored.

     In her experience as a reporter and editor, Bandes said, complaints from sources about the use of quotes are routine, but firing Daily Tar Heel employees is not.

     “They get complaints from sources all the time,” she said.

     Editors generally side with reporters, especially if they have proof their quotes are accurate. If editors find complaints valid, employees are rarely fired on a first offense, because the college newspaper is meant to be a teaching environment where student journalists can make and learn from mistakes.

     Coletta agreed that there should be some room for mistakes in a college journalism environment but said he feels “fundamentally like there was some faulty journalism” in this incident.


     Bandes will not get the opportunity to learn from her experiences at the Daily Tar Heel, and it’s hard to believe it’s all about a breach of journalistic ethics. Bandes herself admits that her column was not perfect, but nothing she wrote amounted to a fireable offense. If college papers started firing every columnist who engaged in hyperbole, offended sources, and used indelicate language, there would be few college columnists left. See examples, here, here, and here.

     The difference between Bandes and other college columnists is that she offended the wrong people, according to academia. Instead of railing against our “oppressive, patriarchal society,” “institutional racism,” or America’s “fascist foreign policy,” she railed against suicidal cultural sensitivity in dangerous times. Had she offended academia-approved groups like whites, conservatives, males, and Republicans, she could have counted on the campus community to shout down anyone who disagreed with her—in celebration of free speech and open debate, of course.

     For his part, Coletta thinks “it’s unfortunate that the strong conservative voice is the one who got let go.” But despite his protestations to the contrary, it’s hard for many conservatives to believe, especially on the UNC campus, that a liberal columnist would have been treated the same had she gotten complaints from a couple of white, male, Christian sources.

     Coletta wrote in his column that Bandes’ sources felt “betrayed.” I’d say the Daily Tar Heel editors did their share of betraying when they used a flimsy excuse to fire Bandes after the column they approved produced a firestorm they weren’t ready to face.

     Had Bandes’ editor kept her as a columnist, she could have honed her skill and made a lot more noise on the opinions page. College newspapers are supposed to be a training ground. They are supposed to spark debate on campus. By firing Bandes, the Daily Tar Heel failed on both counts.

Writer’s note: Chris Coletta, opinion editor for the Daily Tar Heel called me just a few minutes before this column’s deadline. I tried to include his quotes, but will write more about my interview with him on the Townhall C-Log.

Mary Katharine Ham is Senior Writer & Associate Editor at Townhall.com.