The Rooster Fight: 1980s Free Press Case Over Student Newspaper Cartoon in Spotlight Again

An odd student press fight in the late 1980s has been back in the spotlight in recent days. It is, I kid you not, an actual rooster kerfuffle. It is also a case of faculty publisher versus student editorial team and student newspaper independence versus class control.

The 90-second backstory: In 1987, a cartoon ran in The Daily Bruin at UCLA depicting a rooster who tells a gentleman he only got into the university due to Affirmative Action. It was a powder keg of a punchline at the time due to competing opinions on the policy. Students protested– some even forcing their way into the Bruin newsroom and threatening the EIC. The paper was forced to apologize and the EIC and another staffer were briefly suspended. Yet, surprisingly, this is not the part that is making news nowadays. It’s what happened next.

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James Taranto, then the news editor of the Daily Sundial at California State University, Northridge, learned of the controversy soon after it played out. He did some digging at UCLA, wrote up an op-ed for the Sundial, and ran the original rooster cartoon with it. According to Taranto, campus reactions to the cartoon reprinting were mostly muted. But Cynthia Rawitch, the paper’s publisher and a professor in the journalism department, was incensed. Rawitch suspended Taranto for two weeks. He fought it, to her face, in the press, and finally through legal means.

After much grumbling, the school settled the lawsuit– Taranto v. Rawitch– and affirmed “the Sundial serves as a public forum. Students working on the Sundial are fully protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution from censorship by the faculty, school administration and state officials.” Taranto’s settlement: $93, the amount of pay he lost during his two-week suspension. (There is something about typing that last sentence that makes me smile widely.)

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Taranto is now a Wall Street Journal columnist. He recently wrote a fascinating, much more thorough account of this fight– which occurred against the backdrop of the Supreme Court Hazelwood ruling– in the WSJ. He timed it to an announcement of Rawitch’s retirement from Cal State Northridge. The piece’s sub-hed: “A Tribute to an Anti-Mentor.”

A snippet near the close (note that he refers to himself by the plural “we”): “Our long-ago conflict over a college newspaper is trifling by comparison with the subjects we usually write about in this column. But that experience informs our work. It helped us develop both a skepticism of authority and the boldness to challenge it. The lessons we learned have helped us to understand and think hopefully about events that might otherwise seem senseless or dispiriting. The Daily Sundial was the best laboratory experience this aspiring journalist could have hoped for, and Cynthia Rawitch was a worthy adversary. May her retirement be happy, healthy and long.”

Amid these good wishes came additional controversy, in part because Rawitch has publicly responded disputing some of the facts in Taranto’s WSJ write-up. Taranto has in turn responded with additional clarifications of his own.

And that, to quote Taranto, is the “story about a story about a cartoon.”

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