Doonesbury Censorship Fosters Outrage, Debate

by Betsy Gomez

In response to the controversial nature of last week’s Doonesbury strips — which dealt with Texas’s mandatory sonogram law — many newspapers moved the strips to the editorial page or online only, or they declined to publish the strips entirely. In response, people across the nation have decried the move, arguing that newspapers should not be allowed to decide what they can or cannot read. Editors across the nation have had to defend their decisions, and several newspaper and online editorials have protested the censorship.

The editor of the Indianapolis Star, Dennis Ryerson, weighed in on why he chose not to run the comics: his belief that the strips advocated for the abortion of Texas Governor Rick Perry. He writes:

Yet people who know me can attest to my abhorrence of political discourse that so often is personal, vicious and far less than civil. How can we be critical of Rush Limbaugh and yet find the “Doonesbury” series acceptable? How can we detest comments such as that of the Rick Santorum supporter who said women should use the act of holding an aspirin between their legs as a means of birth control, then run a cartoon strip implying that a medical procedure is rape, and that a state governor should have been aborted?

Jeff Light, the editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune, defended his decision to not publish the strips:

I have dozens of letters from readers incensed because Doonesbury did not run in our comics pages this week. This one captured the prevailing sentiment:

“COWARD newspaper! How DARE you decide what I can and cannot read!”

I LOVE that reaction. Not the name-calling. The passion. Freedom of expression is critical to our communities, to our country, to this newspaper.

I’m not here to apologize for killing this week’s comic strip. But I do get charged up by that sort of display of principle. Anti-censorship zeal? Bring it on!

Now, to the case at hand. First, readers should understand that my decision to remove the strip from the funny pages had nothing to do with the political content. And, second — hold your howls of derision for a moment — I don’t consider this an act of censorship, but one of choice.

This paper runs Doonesbury every day of the year. It’s a fixture of our comics pages. Whatever the political message, whether it is funny or lame, insightful or predictable, Doonesbury has its spot, right beside Peanuts. And the record at the U-T going back as far as I can see is one of utter lack of concern about Garry Trudeau’s politics.

I decided this week’s strips were inappropriate for the comics pages based on what I considered the mature nature of the content. I understand that this is debatable, but really, do words like “slut,” and “rape,” really belong next to Linus and Lucy? What about vaginal ultrasound? These seem to me to be items that might invite some parental discretion. The comics pages are many things to many people, but I think it is undeniable that they are designed to attract children.

In place of the comic, we ran the URL where readers could find the strip online, and a link to a news story where they could read about the issue and post their own comments. That’s why I don’t consider this an act of censorship. If we had switched the strips for other Doonesbury material without telling anyone, or removed them without advising where they could easily be found, then I think we would be keeping people from seeing Trudeau’s message. But that is not what we did. We were forthright in our actions, and we guided readers every day to a place to find the material with ease.

Several outlets condemned the censorship as a disappointing disservice to readers, and some point out the double standard to which comics are held. One of the clearest arguments to this effect actually comes from an opinion article in The Daily Aztec, the student newspaper for San Diego State University. The article specifically called out the Union-Tribune:

Newspapers have always rallied against censorship in this country; it’s a shame comic strips haven’t been regarded with the same level of protection. Last week, San Diego’s Union-Tribune decided censorship by omission was the best way to handle controversial cartoons courtesy of Doonesbury. But the U-T wasn’t alone: Several newspapers across the country made a similar judgment call, choosing censorship instead of publishing the comic strip.

For those unfamiliar with the comic, Gary Trudeau has never shied away from any topic, so it should not have come as a surprise to anyone when he decided to take on the recent legislative action regarding women’s health and contraceptive issues in various parts of the United States.

The surprising thing was that many of our nation’s newspapers decided you, the reader, are incapable of making your own assessment of the content of a comic strip, so they just went ahead and removed it from the paper. For the sake of clarification, allow me to emphasize this censorious action was taken not once, but six times, and by several major newspapers.

An editorial by Jennifer Hemmingsen in Iowa City’s The Gazette takes a different tack than most of the protests. It notes that the Texas law is the obscene material, not the comics:

Newspapers, rightly, faced a lot of criticism this week for pulling Garry Trudeau’s series of comics about Texas’ sonogram law.

I happen to agree with the many readers who have argued that while the strips are at times uncomfortable to read, it’s the law that’s obscene, not the satire.

It’s understandable that papers were reluctant to run this week’s Doonesbury on the comics page, where they might come in contact with young eyes and older readers expecting lighthearted laughs.

But there’s something a little sinister about not running the strips at all, of politely turning away from a disturbing trend that deserves considerable public debate.

The debate — much of it civil despite the strong feelings fostered by the censorship and subject matter of the strips — continues in newspaper opinion pages and letter columns and across the blogosphere. If you haven’t seen the strips, you can view them online at the official website for Doonesbury here.

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Betsy Gomez is the Web Editor for CBLDF.