Student Journalists Suspended for Printing Muhammad Cartoons

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," February 17, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: A Pakistani Muslim cleric is offering over $1 million to anyone who will kill the Danish cartoonist behind the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. He claims that if the West can place a bounty on Usama bin Laden and Zawahiri, then he can do this.

The cartoons have sparked deadly riots throughout the Muslim world. Here in the U.S. protests broke out at the University of Illinois where a newspaper printed the images. Now the editor in chief and the opinion page editor of the publication have been suspended. They join us now with their side of the story.

Here is Acton Gorton, the Daily Illini editor in chief and Chuck Prochaska, the Daily Illini opinion editor.

So, Acton, first of all, what happened? You were suspended for publishing these things. Had you been told not to do it?

ACTON GORTON, SUSPENDED FROM DAILY ILLINI: That's right. Mary Cory, the publisher of the Illini Media Company, called me into her office on Tuesday morning and handed me my papers, had me clear out my office, turn in my keys and told me I can't come back on the property.

GIBSON: What did she say the reason was?

GORTON: She said there needed to be a two-week cooling down period while there was an internal investigation made up of senior students and journalism people within the newsroom.

GIBSON: Chuck, had you been told to not do this?

CHUCK PROCHASKA, SUSPENDED FROM DAILY ILLINI: No, we had not been told not to publish these. Mary was clear to us that she doesn't censor content. However, we feel that suspension while they try and investigate the decision making process that we went through is really a suspension because of the content and the cartoons that we published.

GIBSON: Wait a minute. I'm having a little — the paper's publisher is saying you're fired but ...

PROCHASKA: Well, no, not fired, just suspended.

GIBSON: All right, you're suspended. You don't have your job, clean out your desk, go away, we'll talk to you later.


GIBSON: And it's about publishing the cartoons, but we're not telling you what you can or can't publish?

PROCHASKA: Exactly. It's kind of a contradiction in itself. They said they want to investigate the ethics of the decision making process we made, which was Acton coming to me and saying, "Would you like to run these cartoons?" And I said, you know, "Give me a night to sleep on it." And then us having a meeting together and publishing them.

GIBSON: So now why did you decide, Acton, to run these cartoons?

GORTON: Well, I thought that — I've had a lot of students come to me in the few days last week, actually, a few days before we decided to run these cartoons, and they saw the imagery on television of the American flag burning next to the Israeli and the Danish flag. And they saw the controversy and international condemnation, but they didn't understand why because they never got to see the pictures.

GIBSON: You're kidding me. These are kids that are on the Internet and they haven't seen these cartoons? They're the most available thing. Google cartoons and Muslims, and they're there?

GORTON: It's in Danish.

PROCHASKA: Especially last week, when they had not been running in the American press, it was hard to find any English-speaking Web site. Now they're more readily available on the Internet because it's become such a popular issue in our country.

GIBSON: OK. Now this very paper that originally published these, the Danish paper, had not published incendiary or insulting images of Jesus Christ a little earlier because they didn't want to offend the sensibilities of their readers. So if they would self-censor themselves about Christians, why shouldn't they self-censor themselves about Muslims?

PROCHASKA: Well, we would never be the first paper to publish these cartoons. I mean, as I understood it, there was some sort of contest to draw the image of Muhammad. And we would disagree with something — I mean, the University of Illinois paper, you know, the Daily Illini would never say, "Let's just have a contest to draw the image of Muhammad."

But those images, while we disagree with the Danish's paper decision to run them at all, they became the news story overseas and all we wanted to do was inform our readers on what the news story was.

GORTON: And what this has to do with the American public because people see the American flag burning, but there's no explanation for it.


GIBSON: All right. Well, Acton Gorton and Chuck Prochaska, I hope you both get your jobs back. Good luck.

PROCHASKA: We do, too.

GORTON: Thank you, sir.

PROCHASKA: Thank you very much.

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