Drawing a Line Around Obscenity
The Traveler remained relatively conservative through the end of the 1960s, even as the student body and the nation in general became much more liberal. By the early 1970s, though, The Traveler began to change with the times. In part, this was driven by the competition from more liberal independent papers on the campus such as the Grapevine. The student journalists, themselves, were also becoming more liberal.
Onto these shifting sands, the touring company of the Broadway musical "Hair" marched into Barnhill Fieldhouse to perform before a standing-room-only crowd and the Traveler feature editor, Danae Columbus.
Columbus reviewed the show in a story that started on front and jumped to Page 2. She described the counter-establishment sense of the play and then, in quoting from the play itself, became the first Traveler writer to use the F-word in a story: “‘Hair’ counters with such things as, ‘Fighting for peace is like fucking for chastity’ and ‘The draft is the white man sending the black man to make war on the yellow man who stole it from the red man in the first place.’”
The usage caught the immediate attention of the UA board of publications, which considered the matter less than a week later. Jess Covington, chair of the journalism department, offered a prepared statement: “For many years, the department has used the Traveler as a lab for experience. ... The language used in the review of Hair and the letter following (which responded to Miss Columbus’ review and used some of the same words used in the review) was a disservice to the Traveler and the department. ... That’s not the kind of journalism we teach in the department. If this has become a policy, then we the Journalism Department will not be able to continue our relationship with the Traveler.”
Editor Skipper Rutherford said that The Traveler had no official policy of using four-letter words but that by using profane words in this instance, the paper "intended to show the student body that we are objective." He said that the paper had no intent to embarrass anyone, either students or the journalism department.
The newspaper had run into similar charges earlier in the semester when the paper began running the names of students who were arrested by city police. The Associated Student Government passed a resolution accusing The Traveler of defaming and humiliating the students of the university. At the time Rutherford had explained that the newspaper's intent was to show students their impact on the Fayetteville community.
The new charge of using profanity was more difficult to defend, but a student on the board of publications, Dell Shay, pointed out the obvious: "I don't see how Hair could be reviewed without that kind of language. One can't show what Hair was really like without use of those words."
Bill Hughes, the director of UA Information and a member of the board of publications, said that refraining from printing obscenity was a "matter of pride" and that newspapers should be "the last bulwarks of high standards." Rutherford replied: "It is our pride to be honest with the students."
Ultimately, the board of publications took no action, but a rift between the journalism department and The Traveler persisted until the mid-1970s.
The Arkansas Traveler. September 29, 1971.
Ibid., October 25, 1971.
Ibid., October 29, 1971.