The Nassau Weekly
The Daily Princetonian reports that the Nassau Weekly, an irreverant student publication that tries to get a good laugh every now and then, recently apologized for running a list of the top ten Holocaust movies we would like to see but have never seen. An excerpt from the article describing the spoof:
The list, which was printed in the magazine's Feb. 10 issue under the larger headline "And Now For Something Completely Offensive," was written by the magazine's coeditor-in-chief Jacob Savage '06 and features editor Rob Buerki '06.
In the list, Savage and Buerki — who are both Jewish — altered mainstream movie titles like "Dude, Where's My Car," "A Weekend at Bernie's" and "Meet the Fockers" to "Dude, Where's My Family," "A Week at Bergen-Belsen" and "Exterminate the Fockers."
The administration called the list "undeniably offensive" and is considering disciplinary measures. I agree with the administration on the first and not the second. While the Nassau Weekly editors explained that they showed it to other Jewish students (presumably friends of theirs) who said they were not offended by it, they misjudged the political sensitivity of this issue. Although the title of the piece was "And now for something completely offensive", the authors do not seem to have thought that the piece would be truly offensive, only offensive in a manner designed to elicit a few laughs at the sheer inappropriateness of the piece. At least that is what I knew the publication to be when I was at Princeton; they used to place copies in every toilet stall and always delighted in being a thorn in the Daily Princetonian's side. Nonetheless, that the editors would so badly misjudge the public reaction is surprising in light of the controversy surrounding Prince Harry last month when he wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party. Asking friends to take a look is also not the best way to measure potential reaction because your friends know who you are and that you did not have bad intentions and will take that into account when offering their take on your work.
However, disciplinary measures goes too far. The almost uniformly negative reaction to this piece seems to have done its job. The authors learned that they overstepped the boundaries of what the public finds acceptable and apologized. This is the marketplace of ideas at its best. Disciplinary measures are therefore unnecessary. Although sanctions might encourage student editors to think twice before publishing anything, that seems to be the practice generally now; it's not clear to me that the editors would have done any differently because they were clearly concerned about the possible reaction when they showed the piece to their friends and they appear to have simply made a misjudgment in that regard. In this way, the sanctions would largely punish those who did not anticipate that they would be flouting any University rules. Strict liability is simply inappropriate in the speech context not only because it would chill the exchange of ideas that the marketplace of ideas thrives on, but also because, as just discussed, there is already the possibility of "market correction." In this context, the authors probably feel terrible about what they have done, and that they will think twice before publishing anything even remotely similar in the future.