Stephanie Eisner, Trayvon Martin, the First Amendment, and Learning

Stephanie Eisner’s editorial cartoon for The Daily Texan.

In the wake of Stephanie Eisner’s exit from the University of Texas at Austin’s student newspaper The Daily Texan, some commenters have expressed concern in light of these reports over the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The basic concern involves Eisner’s punishment, as some reports suggest she was fired, for creating a cartoon featuring a woman reading to a child about the Trayvon Martin case. The very problematic cartoon misspells Martin’s name and refers to him as a “colored boy.” Commenters contend that while the view expressed may be offensive to some, the punishment denies Eisner her constitutional right to speak. What such a view fails to accept, it seems to me, is that Eisner does express her views. She offered her commentary and now she is being held responsible for her ideas. Freedom of speech does not entail freedom from responsibility.

Eisner’s critique of the “yellow journalism” involved in the news stories about the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case is effectively undermined by the fact that she misspells Martin’s first name. Thus, how well-researched is her own commentary if she misspells a principle subject’s name? The attention that Eisner draws to the racial narratives involved in the case anachronistically refer to Trayvon Martin, an African American, as “colored,” and while I don’t dispute the juxtaposition of adult and child, the fact that she refers to Martin as a “colored boy” renders this contrast racist.

Though I think that Eisner should definitely be expected to respond to her critics, I hope that she doesn’t decide to completely remove herself from journalism; after all, she is a student. Quitting would fully reflect a major limitation in constructions of good students as being lords of all the right answers. It’s a model that I think starts early in popular ideas about responsible ways of engaging young children about school. When parents ask children, “What did you learn in school today,” their question ostensibly marks an investment in the intellectual life of the child. However, I think this question comes too late in the day. A different model, one that Eisner would benefit from, would ask the child early morning questions like these: What are you thinking about this morning? What have you been thinking about lately? What do you want to learn about in school today? What kinds of questions are you going to ask so that you might come close to knowing that? These questions suggest that children should be actively engaged in education. Moreover, such questions support the pursuit of knowledge over the mere attainment of it. From this perspective, a more suitable end of the day question then involves asking the child whether or not they learned what they expected to and suggesting ways that going to the library, a museum, a farm, or a fire station might help the child further address their questions.

As it stands, students trained to think that being a good student means to tell everyone what they know are without recourse when their answers are inarticulately expressed, a-historic, ill-conceived, or just plain wrong. It’s not clear to me that Stephanie Eisner ever asked questions about representations of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case in popular culture. Eisner’s apology quoted in the Austin American-Statesman reflects on the commentary she had intended but not on the questions she asked. Students need to learn to ask clear and precise questions. Clear and precise questions reveal what you want to know and understand. Schooling should help discipline one’s ability to ask questions. Eisner’s claim that she is “not a racist” offers little consolation if she hasn’t spent time questioning why she referred to Martin as a “colored boy.” She would help herself better live out this claim if she questioned her own illustration of hate speech. It is hard to believe that someone who is “personally appalled by the killing of Trayvon Martin” would misspell his name and suggest that this dead child has been the recipient of too much sympathy and his killer too much blame. Her commentary reflects the brutal mean-spiritedness of limited questioning in racialized terms. Thus, I think it would help her to stay in school and continue pursuing journalism.

Being a student, someone truly committed to learning, is a humbling experience. Students who are taught to question are trained in humility because they are always admitting what they don’t know. A life-long learner, then, is someone who commits themselves to the practice of humility. My grandfather helped me in developing this view of learning. I don’t remember what I was poppin’ off about but whatever it was, I must have been arrogant and perhaps even agitated in expressing my views and engaging in discussion. I remember my grandfather saying to me, “you must not know your ABCs.” “What?” I said. “Of course I know my ABCs.” “Let me hear you say them,” my grandfather said. But as I set out to reciting the alphabet, my grandfather interrupted me, “See, you don’t know your ABCs,” he said:

“You got to Always Be Cool. Those are the ABCs that you clearly have not mastered.”

I remember thinking that he was right. My behavior and my arrogant recitation did not suggest that I knew even the fundamentals involved in exchanging ideas. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. So when I am really passionate about my position, I always return to the cool. This return forces me to think carefully before I speak; to be clear about what I am responding to; thinking through the implications of my ideas; to be measured in my responses. Discussing George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin requires humility and cool. Stephanie Eisner’s cartoon ignores the seriousness of Zimmerman’s actions, the loss of Martin’s life, the suffering of Martin’s friends and family. Continuing to work for the paper, in any capacity, with a serious awareness of what it means to be a student might help her in crafting future responses that more eloquently reflect views that more closely approximate who she claims to be as well as what she wants to say.

See Also: 

For more posts on Trayvon Martin, see the A Heap See Page.

4 thoughts on “Stephanie Eisner, Trayvon Martin, the First Amendment, and Learning

  1. 1) If misspelling the victim’s name makes the cartoonist automatically racist, then you should be charging the editors of FOX News, Washington Post, and CBS Denver with the label of ‘racist’, too.

    Look at these links:

    See what they have in common? They all misspelled the victim’s name too!

    2) The cartoonist herself did not have racist or offensive intentions. In contrast, take the case of the New Jersey Transit worker who *did* intend to offend people by burning a Koran at a rally:

    When the New Jersey Transit fired that man, the ACLU stood behind him and sued on his behalf. They argued that while people are allowed to object to constitutionally-protected speech (by means of protest, etc.), public employers are not allowed to fire their workers for exercising those free speech rights.

    Not only did the man win his case, New Jersey Transit had to pay him damages and lawyers’ fees, too:

    People can and did protest the cartoonist, but trying to get her fired for her published views is a violation of the First Amendment.

    3) The term ”colored” was deemed to be no problem by the NAACP back in 2008, when Lindsay Lohan called our President ‘colored’. See this:

    Where were the howls of outrage and protest against Ms. Lohan for “being a racist”? Instead, the NAACP gave Ms. Lohan a clean bill of health. It’s a blatant double-standard to give Ms. Lohan a free pass on charges of ‘racism’ that this UT cartoonist is having to put up with.

    4) An important aspect of journalism is that you’re not going to make everyone happy all of the time. Why should journalists’ art be crimped out of a chronic fear that someday someone is going to misinterpret an obscure publication of theirs and their career will be over because a couple of people call it “racist!”?

    5) The cartoonist isn’t studying journalism in school. She is a public health and economics major.

    6) The cartoon does not imply at all that Mr. Martin received “too much sympathy”. Like the protesters, you too apparently have misinterpreted the cartoon.

    Think: Why do the words “THE MEDIA” appear in block letters on the chair? The cartoon is saying that the media itself has sensationalized a complex murder and tragedy into a crude and racialist narrative. The cartoon itself is anti-racism, and it’s against the national media turning a genuine tragedy into simplistic headlines on “Race in America!”.

    And that, in itself, is indeed Yellow Journalism.

    7) Your grandfather himself gave very good advice. Unfortunately, the protesters themselves weren’t keen on following it. Read this:

    Throwing around the label of “racist” is serious business. It’s not a joke. Our campus even has offices of diversity and takes allegations of racist behavior extremely seriously. They bandied around the term ‘racist’ without thinking of the repercussions for the University and its workers. They just wanted their vindictiveness to be satiated, and for people to lose their jobs.

    At any rate, I have created a petition to reinstate the cartoonist, because I do believe that her firing was a travesty of free speech and journalistic integrity.

    1. Thank you for the seriousness of your reply.

      I should point out that my claim is that misspelling the victim’s name undermines Stephanie Eisner’s critique of the lack of research as well as the professional carelessness involved in the Trayvon Martin case that her reference to “yellow journalism” suggests. Her critique may have been stronger had she been more careful in articulating her own point of view through the proper spelling of Martin’s name.

      It should also be pointed out that the NAACP cannot make edicts that supplant historical and cultural consensus regarding racial terminology. Too, instead of calling Martin a “colored boy,” it would have been more thoughtful/considerate to refer to him as either a “child” or a “young man.” Linking race with “boy” effectively renders it an epithet. (Consider, for example, Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues: Makes Me Wanna Holla.” When he sings, “send that boy off to die,”boy isn’t problematic; instead, it is affectionate and endearing. The effect comes from the fact that the term “boy” is not raced even though you can imagine him referencing it.) I do not think that referring to Martin as a “colored young man” or a “colored child” would have been better. Thus, if I were advising her, I would have suggested that she properly spell his name and refer to him as a “black child” in order to parallel the reference with the one she makes to Zimmerman. At this juncture, however, one has to wonder if the text can effectively make the case she intends to since it now presents an historic abuse of power that she ostensibly does not support.

      Thank you for your kind words about my grandfather. He remains my model for doing thoughtful intellectual work. His insights on teaching/thinking/learning help me to see a student’s role as a student, regardless of their major, as a candidate for learning. While Eisner may not be registered as a journalism major, that does not mean that as a student working for the student paper she is not a student of journalism; she is indeed a journalism student when she is working as a contributor to the school newspaper. I would like to see her continue in this role so that she can receive training.

      I do want to thank you for considering me among the “protestors” as I do see myself among their number. The most effective African American protest movements have historically responded to racial violence with love. The modern day Civil Rights movement offers an example. In response to the lynching of Emmett Till, the Montgomery bus boycott was the first dramatic act of resistance that peacefully and lovingly responded to that awful tragedy. I think that most mainstream responses to the murder of Trayvon Martin have used such acts of resistance as a response.

      My post reflects my reasons for viewing Eisner’s cartoon as racist, I continue to stand behind them, but there is no need to rehearse such views here. I do think that Eisner should be able to work on the newspaper but not for the reasons that you offer. She is a student, after all, and she should be able to take a risk, make a mistake and continue to be counted among those invested in improving and clarifying her ideas.

      1. Thank you kindly for your views. You’ve definitely put a lot of thought into this and certainly can engage in reasonable discourse. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for a lot of students here at UT.) You and I obviously will have our disagreements, but I wanted to thank you for considering my viewpoints respectfully.

        Warm regards,

        1. Dear Samian,

          Thank you so much for your kind words. I am so sorry that you have had to suffer through the incivility that is unfortunately plaguing our discourse. I appreciate the maturity of your acknowledgement that despite our differing points of view, we can not only be civil but also complimentary. You did not have to acknowledge my investment and focus in this matter while maintaining your own commitments, but in doing so, you offer a model of humane and civil discourse that I find admirable. So I thank you, not only for your kind words, but also for you humanity.


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