President Tom Rochon’s response to an article by Emily McNeill ’08 in the latest issue of IC View, the college’s quarterly alumni magazine, has prompted alumni, students and faculty to question free speech on campus.
McNeill’s story, “The Violence Must End,” is a first-person account of her experiences last summer with Israeli violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and appears in the “Final Word” column on the magazine’s last page. She recounts the attacks she witnessed in Hebron — a Palestinian territory — while working with Christian Peacemaker Teams, an ecumenical organization that travels to conflict areas to support nonviolent action and protection of human rights.
A flow of comments started with one alumna who called the story “absolutely maddening.” In the first comment, Naomi Swerdlow ’03 said it was not what she wanted to read in an alumni magazine.
More than 40 alumni, students and faculty have commented on the online version of the story on IC View’s Web site, many thanking McNeill for sharing her experiences and the alumni magazine for publishing it.
“This is information that rarely gets aired in our mainstream media,” Adelaide Park Gomer, a trustee of the Park Foundation, said in comment. “Thank you, IC View for having the courage to publish this article. I can rest assured that the Park School at Ithaca College is doing its job. It is truly an incubator for free speech, a platform from which educated views can be expressed.”
About five days after comments started, Rochon responded with an online letter to IC View readers, in which he said the magazine failed to discuss a controversial issue “in a fully balanced and unbiased manner.”
In the letter, Rochon said the editorial review process for articles in IC View was not followed and called for both a stronger internal editorial review policy and the creation of an editorial board to review all relevant content of the magazine.
Rochon said while it’s not reasonable to expect one story to entail the greater complexities of the Middle East conflict, he said the presentation of McNeill’s story as the final word in IC View was hurtful to alumni who see other dimensions and complexities in the conflict.
“It’s the impression readers came away with, about an official college position on violence in the West Bank, that I so much regret,” he said.
Maura Stephens, editor of IC View since 1997, apologized on the magazine’s Web site Feb. 11.
“I not only didn’t exercise the best editorial judgment, but I didn’t follow editorial procedures,” she said. “Instead I ran the story without having anyone else on campus review it first.”
Stephens was not available for comment at press time.
Rochon said, in the past, Tom Torello, executive director of marketing communications, and Shelley Semmler, vice president of institutional advancement, have reviewed IC View articles before publication.
McNeill said she was unaware that typical procedures were not followed but said she feels confident in Stephens’ editing.
“[She] was very vigilant about making sure I had sources to back up everything I said, that either I had seen something firsthand or I could verify it in multiple places,” McNeill said. “She went through all the proper
procedures of making sure in the context of what I was writing about, which was a specific town in the West Bank, that I was telling as complete a story as I could.”
Both Rochon’s and Stephens’ responses generated comments from the college community about the role of journalism in an alumni magazine.
Matt Mogekwu, associate professor and chair of the Department of Journalism, said even if IC View is a public relations magazine, the college should be careful when talking about establishing any kind of prior restraint, which would conflict with the principle of freedom of expression.
“It would be creating more problems for us as a department or even as a school of communications if we preach one thing and enforce something else,” he said. “I’m very concerned about the possibility of that.”
Senior Karin Fleming, editor of Buzzsaw Haircut, the college’s alternative magazine, who interned at IC View last spring, said she felt Rochon’s comment about the article’s lack of balance was flawed. She said a binary discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian debate in particular is not realistic.
“It’s playing into this false sense of balance that’s perpetrated by the news today where there are only two sides to a situation and that’s it,” Fleming said. “Especially for a topic that’s so complex and convoluted as the Israeli-Palestinian debate, that’s a really irresponsible thing for a publication to be promoting.”
Senior Renee LaDue said in a comment that the article showcases the talents of recent graduates.
“Politics aside, isn’t that exactly what IC View is about?” she said.
In a comment, Peter Rothbart, professor of music theory, history and composition, said the function of a public relations magazine like IC View is different from that of a news magazine.
“This is not an issue of academic freedom or freedom of the press, but rather a business one,” he said. “IC View exists for business reasons and should be managed as such.”
On Monday, Asma Barlas, professor and program director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity, and Beth Harris, associate professor of politics, wrote a letter to The Ithacan outlining concerns about Rochon’s response to McNeill’s article. Forty faculty members signed the letter.
“We want to ask him to explain to us how his reaction is going to be respectful of those students, alumni and faculty who might hold minority points of view that are not really popular here but nonetheless need to be defended,” Barlas said.
In a 2001 issue of The Ithaca College Quarterly (the previous name of IC View), Barlas wrote the essay, “Why Do They Hate Us?” in which she raised questions about U.S. foreign policy. When Peggy R. Williams, president of the college at the time, faced pressure from alumni to fire Barlas, she defended Barlas’ right to free speech in an op-ed published in the Ithaca Journal.
“These are two diametrically opposed ways of dealing with a similar issue,” Barlas said. “The similar issue is that both of us have said something about the Middle East or about Muslims that is not acceptable to some minority of people.”
The issue also prompted students to form IC Student Coalition for Academic Rights, a group created in response to Rochon’s efforts to establish what the group calls “a censorship panel for IC View.”
In a petition to Rochon, the group demands he “acknowledge that controversial dialogue should not be stifled.” The group said in the petition that McNeill’s article fits part of IC View’s stated mission, to “stimulate discussion of issues of interest to the college community.”
For the faculty letter, Rochon’s clarification of his original response and additional commentary, see pages 12 though 14 of The Ithacan.