Faculty, newspaper compromise over anti-Semitic op-ed

In the two months since its student newspaper published an anti-Semitic commentary, the campus of Santa Rosa Junior College has been home to strife, finger-pointing, sheaves of hate mail and even death threats.

But a unanimous resolution passed by the school's academic senate on May 7 calling for the newspaper to review its curriculum regarding journalistic ethics and standards was greeted as equitable by participants in all sides of the debate.

"The academic senate gave us a proposal how to prevent something like this from happening again. I think it's very fair," said Kristinae Toomians, the SRJC Oak Leaf's editor-in-chief.

"They made the point that all classes have to follow a certain standard, and the journalism class is no exception. They're proposing the teaching of ethics in this class. I think that's a very good idea."

Toomians, 19, and faculty adviser Richard Mellott read and approved Kevin McGuire's March 18 editorial "Is anti-Semitism ever the result of Jewish behavior?"

The 21-year-old McGuire, whom Toomians later learned is a self-described white separatist, claimed Israel is the most dangerous terrorist nation on earth, is engaged in a "Jewish holy war" against the Palestinians and that American Jews have hijacked the nation's government and media. The article echoed white supremacist literature not unlike that found on www.nationalvanguard.com, which was cited as a source.

Some enraged faculty and community members asked for Toomians and Mellott to be fired at the time. Both, however, claimed free-speech protection under the First Amendment.

Toomians' car was defaced, and she has since received multiple death threats. The offices of the Oak Leaf were locked for security reasons, and campus police escorted the editor-in-chief around campus for a time.

The re-publication of McGuire's article and a subsequent Bulletin story on several extremist Web sites led to harassing phone calls and letters to Jewish faculty.

"Since I last spoke to you [in March], I've gotten a big packet of hate mail," said Dianne Smith, a Jewish anthropology professor who has spearheaded faculty objections to the article.

"It has been very uncomfortable on campus."

Indeed, the author of the white supremacist Adelaide Institute Web site interviewed Toomians and described her as "near tears" and "a sacrificial lamb for the Jews." He wrote that her parents planned to "move her to another part of California" to protect her.

Toomians told the Bulletin she was not "near tears" and claimed the Web site falsified many of her quotes. Her parents are not moving her for her protection; she plans to matriculate to U.C. Davis at the end of the term.

She said the interviewer innocuously claimed he was writing for the "community news" and she hung up on him when he began "going off about Jews controlling everything."

Smith hopes the non-binding academic senate resolution will help prevent a similar article from being published. Since the Oak Leaf is, essentially, a class with students receiving five credits, Smith feels the establishment of academic standards is appropriate.

Smith and others also expressed anger that they have been portrayed as attackers of the First Amendment, or bullies giving student journalists a hard time.

"I don't think we want to step on the toes of freedom of the press. Students need to be given proper tools and the right advice and guidance to make their decisions. I believe that was lacking in this case," said Judy Penso, the Jewish Community Relations Council's North Bay regional director.

"Just because we have freedom of the press doesn't mean something should be printed. They need to accept responsibility for making a very big mistake and apologize for it."

Toomians, however, said staff members of the paper felt that publishing two full pages of angry letters and a point-by-point rebuttal to the McGuire article by arts editor Matt Witthaus was enough.

She subsequently apologized, however, for "the emotional harm my decision has caused" in an April letter to faculty members and, similarly, in a May 2 front-page story by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

The apologies "particularly impressed" Smith.

"I don't need anybody to be punished, I don't even need Richard Mellott to be fired, unless there are other issues I don't know about," she said.

"This issue is a tremendous learning experience."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.