The word “censorship” evokes Communist Russia or North Korea—not exactly sleepy, friendly Santa Fe.
Yet according to Tiffany Shackelford, the executive director for the national Association for Alternative Newsmedia (of which SFR is a member), that’s exactly what happened to SFR last week.
In case you missed the breathless TV newscasts (“A provocative cover for an unconventional paper!” KOAT proclaimed), last Wednesday, a disgruntled reader confiscated some 400 copies of SFR shortly after the most recent issue hit newsstands.
“People who steal papers just to keep information from getting out to the public are actively engaging in acts of censorship,” Shackelford says. “That’s an act of censorship.”
It started with an anonymous call around 10 am. The caller said the paper was “filthy” and said he planned to remove copies of SFR from newsstands around town. Although he didn’t specify what, exactly, he considered filthy, the cover of the paper featured the headline “Nuts to Butts”—a reference to a controversial prison shakedown technique, and the topic of that week’s cover story. The image showed the backs of a man’s bare legs (actually, the legs of SFR staff writer Joey Peters), with an orange prison jumpsuit around his ankles.
Here at SFR, angry calls about less-than-G-rated material aren’t exactly uncommon—but rarely do they turn into “acts of censorship.”
Ultimately, it probably did less harm than good. By the end of the day, we had ordered 1,000 additional copies of the “Nuts to Butts” issue and taped two TV interviews for that night’s 10 pm broadcast. Only around 400 of the 19,500 papers we’d printed were actually taken, and the rest were flying off the stands.
“When there’s something in there that someone doesn’t want people to read, they wanna read it, you know?”
says Brian Clarey, the editor of the Greensboro, NC-based YES! Weekly, an alternative weekly paper that experienced a similar incident in 2009. “There really is no such thing as bad publicity. I’ve had to repeat that to myself over and over and over again, but something like this is great.”
But to Shackelford and others, the ease with which free papers like SFR can be suppressed—and the lack of recourse when it comes to prosecuting censorship—point to more worrisome trends.
“When the government doesn’t fully prosecute people, they’re aiding and abetting censorship,” Shackelford says. “We’re talking a lot about transparency these days, and how the government is getting allegedly better on things like freedom of information, yet there’s a major, major issue with censorship.”
Recently, New Mexico has become a focal point for censorship.
Jyllian Roach, the paper’s 29-year-old editor-in-chief, says the idea came up last fall.
“We wanted to come at sex and sexuality from a place of education; we wanted to talk about things that normally aren’t covered in your basic sex-ed class,” Roach explains. “Like, we talk about STIs; we talk about pregnancy; we talk about how to put a condom on. But we don’t talk about what you do when you’re having sex—how you do that safely, how you communicate with your partner well, things like that—so those were the things that we wanted to touch on.”
From a low-ceilinged, dimly lit portable building on campus, Roach sets the paper’s weekly editorial direction.
She has the frank, no-nonsense manner of a journalist and mother of three.
After months of work, the Chronicle staff decided on a publication date that coincided with US Supreme Court arguments about California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in 2008, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which confined the term “marriage” to heterosexual couples. Around the same time, Santa Fe City Attorney Geno Zamora released his own legal memo arguing that same-sex marriage is already legal in New Mexico [news, March 27: “Pride in Limbo”].
On the morning of Tuesday, March 26, the Chronicle’s sex issue hit newsstands. Roach says she heard inklings of discord, but nothing serious happened until the afternoon, when she and her faculty adviser were called to the office of the Dean of Students.
“He just said, ‘The administration is shutting down the paper,’” Roach recalls. “We were told that it was because the issue was considered raunchy.”
It was a dramatic step.
“Actually, the question I asked immediately was, ‘Did they read it? Did they actually read it?’” Roach says.
She conferred with her adviser and decided to wait until the next day to try to change the administration’s mind. But just as they were finishing their conversation, she says, “I got an email from a student letting me know that they were actually confiscating the papers out of the stands.” Copies of the papers were removed from teachers’ desks, and rumor had it—although Roach says her staff didn’t witness this—that some administrators even yanked papers directly from students’ hands.
“At that point, I was like, ‘You know what? We can’t wait; we have to move now,’” Roach says. “So I called the Foundation for Open Government, and I called the Student Press Law Center, and it just sort of took off from there.”
It didn’t take long for administrators to reverse course, and 22 hours later, the Chronicle was back on newsstands. Roach says she hasn’t talked to the administration since the incident; she’s waiting for tempers to cool first.
“I love CNM, and it was never my intention for something like this to happen,” she says. “The school has gotten a ton of publicity, but it wasn’t good publicity. I didn’t want that.”
Still, Roach doesn’t regret the decision to publish.
“We want the information to be out there, and if a parent doesn’t want their child to see that, that’s fine,” she says. “It’s not mandatory to read a newspaper…but we do think the information should be out there.”
On April 2, the Chronicle published a five-page spread filled with reader comments from a range of perspectives. Many of them support the Chronicle’s decision—and all of them underscore the importance of local newspapers as forums for debate.
In general, censorship brings to mind overt actions by a governing authority, like in CNM’s case. In totalitarian regimes, censors destroyed anything—books, works of art, opera librettos—they deemed detrimental to the political regime. (Book-burnings became a famous symbol of censorship in Nazi Germany.)
Yet the American Civil Liberties Union, which runs a Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology, offers a more nuanced view—one that better aligns with how censorship plays out in modern society: “Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive,’ happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others.”
This, in essence, is the central question around censorship: Who imposes their morals? Who gets to decide what’s offensive?
In the traditional journalistic model, First Amendment protections enable news organizations to print pretty much anything short of malicious falsehoods or plagiarized content. Most news organizations have a built-in accountability model: They rely on readers to refrain from confiscating hundreds of copies—thereby depriving other readers of access to important information—and instead offer an outlet for reader opinions, usually in the form of published letters to the editor or guest op-eds.
There’s also another layer of accountability: In addition to informing readers, good journalism also helps hold public officials and governments accountable to those readers.
In case you missed the context behind SFR’s now-infamous “Nuts to Butts” story, it concerns two class-action lawsuits filed by current and former inmates of the state-run Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas, south of Albuquerque. The inmates claim that, on multiple occasions, they were forced to strip down to their underwear and sit in a line on the floor, with each prisoner straddling the man in front of him (hence the “nuts to butts” term). Alleging sexual humiliation and cruel and unusual punishment, the men are seeking damages and a court order to keep prison officials from using the seating arrangement again in the future.
But the story also focused on an even more worrisome development: Much of the evidence that could have proved the inmates’ case, such as surveillance video and complaints filed at the time, has gone missing. On top of that, current New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel (who was not in office at the time of the alleged incidents) won’t rule out the possible use of “nuts to butts” again in the future.
SFR spent hours combing through hundreds of pages of court records, filing public-records requests and calling sources—the type of deep investigative work that fewer and fewer media outlets have the time, staff or resources to do.
The result, Shackelford says, is “sort of a broccoli story—a story that is not that awesome to read. It’s well done—don’t get me wrong—but it’s a little bit painful. You don’t want to read a story like that all the time.”
As in any industry, packaging goes a long way, and SFR tried to create a cover image that would draw readers into the story. Just as the story itself should discomfit people by exposing serious issues in New Mexico’s correctional system, we reasoned, so too should the cover.
Alt-weeklies, Shackelford says, have a reputation for “in-your-face” cover art. Often, that aligns with their founding mission: to challenge the conventional thinking prevalent in mainstream media.
“For the most part, we’re not covering ‘filth’ or provocative topics just for the sake of being provocateurs; we’re covering them because no one else is,” Shackelford says. “And perhaps it’s not what some people want to talk about or think about, but it’s part of their community, so it’s a legitimate conversation to have. So I guess my thing is, when you say ‘smut’ or ‘filth’—people are smutty or filthy, and we’re covering people in our community. And isn’t that what we should be doing?”
In SFR’s case, much of the “smut” has centered around our annual Love & Sex issues.
This year, a cover featuring two dolls arranged in a suggestive layout prompted so much feedback that SFR had to temporarily double its space allotment for letters to the editor. But even though a few callers threatened to remove the issue from newsstands in bulk, none did—at least, as far as we know.
Julia Goldberg, who edited the Reporter from 2000-2011 and now teaches at Santa Fe University of Art and Design and hosts a daily morning radio show on 101.5 FM, recalls similar reactions about the cover of SFR’s 2005 Love & Sex issue, a cartoon image of a devil holding a banana.
“I was often surprised by the things that upset people—I was taken completely off guard by the reaction to that cover,” Goldberg says. “Other times, issues I thought would spark outrage—like abuse of prisoners—had very little response. So it was rarely the things I thought that provoked a response.”
Goldberg says she got several angry phone calls in February 2005, and that papers began disappearing from racks around town. She also fielded the occasional call (which SFR continues to receive) about “Savage Love,” the syndicated column by Seattle sex writer and LGBT rights activist Dan Savage.
“It’s always sort of predicated on not necessarily adults being offended by it, but being worried about children seeing it,” Goldberg says.
Around the same time, SFR started running a blurb in the masthead, telling people only to take one copy.
“It was always interesting to me how many people would say, ‘I believe in free speech, but—’ and then talk about what needed to be not published. I think the thing about free speech is, if you believe in it, there is no ‘but.’ I read and see plenty of things that I find offensive, too—and they’re not usually sexually based; they’re politically based—but just because I find something offensive doesn’t mean that I think it should be eliminated,” Goldberg says. “It just means I have a choice to articulate why I’m offended by it or to not look at it.”
That goes back to the original problem with censorship: It flips the traditional role of a news organization on its head. In general, it’s up to a newspaper to strike a balance between “broccoli” stories and interesting (even shocking) cover art, and it’s up to a community to respond through civil avenues—ie, without depriving other people of access to information. And sometimes, it all comes down to a difference of opinion.
“To this day, I don’t really understand it, because I don’t understand what is offensive in general about nipples. When people were calling and saying, ‘My child could see this nipple,’ I’m like, you know, ‘Does your child not know that there are nipples?’ I mean, a nipple, to me, is not like some inherently bad thing. I really—a cartoon nipple is even less bad! So I did not quite get it.”
It’s a delicate balance—particularly for news outlets that, like SFR, were founded on a tradition of challenging the status quo. But as free publications, both SFR and the CNM Chronicle are also among the easiest to censor. (Imagine putting 75 cents, over and over, into each of the Albuquerque Journal’s newspaper boxes!)
That free publications have more to lose—as do our readers— makes the balancing act even trickier. Free newspapers, Shackelford points out, are a last bastion of equal-opportunity information: You don’t need an address to get a subscription; you don’t need access to a computer or money to pay for a paywall.
“All of us got into this game because we believe on some level in democracy,” Shackelford says. “And we believe that, in order to have a functioning society, we have to have an informed citizenry, and information has to be free for the masses.”
She adds that free, alternative papers occupy a unique and important space in the ever-changing news industry.
“Now, more than ever, with the state of the daily press as it is, we are the only ones watchdogging,” she says.
“We are the only ones truly holding people accountable, particularly those in power. So this is actually more of an issue than it ever has been, because having this information at people’s fingertips is essential to our democratic society continuing to function.”
To be sure, not every issue of the Reporter has been dedicated solely to such lofty aims. At the end of that frantic Wednesday spent trying to catch the paper thief, SFR staffers hit The Palace Restaurant & Saloon for some much-needed decompressing.
There, we presented a copy of the “Nuts to Butts” issue to our server, Julian, for some outside perspective.
After scrutinizing it for a moment, he shrugged, grinned and said, “I’ve seen worse on the cover of the Reporter.”
This isn’t the first time SFR has pissed someone off. Nor is it the first time we’ve seen papers disappear.
“When people would get mad, that was sort of their response to it—they would try to take the papers off the street,” former SFR Editor Julia Goldberg says. “And you know, the Reporter—you have that statement that it’s illegal, but I think people sometimes think because it’s free they can go ahead and do that.”
SFR currently prints a disclaimer: “Though the Santa Fe Reporter is free, please take just one copy. Anyone removing papers in bulk from our distribution points will be prosecuted, as they say, to the full extent of the law.” But according to 1st Judicial District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco, the fact remains that each copy of SFR is, technically, free.
“How do you establish the value of something that you’re giving out for free?” she asks. “How can you accuse of them of stealing, because it’s out there to be given away? Property is property, and you lose control of it once you put it out in the public domain. You lose control once you put them out in those boxes. Somebody might say, ‘I have a really big family!’”
Association for Alternative Newsmedia Executive Director Tiffany Shackelford says New Mexico, like many states, lacks strong censorship laws. (Only three states consider it a crime to confiscate free newspapers to keep others from reading them: California, Colorado and Maryland.)
“By not having laws that allow the government to prosecute people who steal free papers…they are acting in cahoots with censors,” Shackelford says. “Let’s not understate this issue.”
Among legislators shy of introducing such a measure, she adds, “It’s a subtle way of saying they don’t want anyone to hold them accountable.”
Yet in this particular case, the issue of prosecution is moot. We were unable to trace the telephone number of the man who called threatening to remove our “filth” from the streets, and neither police nor our reporters were able to catch anyone actively removing papers from SFR’s red boxes.
Back in February 2009, 6,000 issues of YES! Weekly—the free weekly paper in Greensboro, NC—were stolen overnight. Editors claimed the thieves hoped to censor an investigative cover story about the city’s…nightlife. Each year, dozens of free weeklies suffer mass theft. Student papers are especially hit hard. The Student Press Law Center estimates over half a million student papers have been stolen since 2000. While fraternity pranksters are often to blame, sometimes censorship is the motive.
Three of the greatest (recent) newspaper capers:
The Daily Californian
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was caught trashing 1,000 copies of The Daily Californian in 2002, when the paper ran an editorial in support of his opponent. He was ordered to pay a $250 fine.
In 2009, two MIT campus police officers were suspended without pay after admitting they recycled 300 issues of the student-run Tech. The issue featured a cover story about a fellow MIT police officer’s drug trafficking ring.
The Westchester Guardian
The Mayor of Yonkers, Phil Amacone, had issues of the suburban weekly confiscated after it reported on the eve of his election that he visited strip clubs. The paper was eventually awarded $8 million by a federal jury.