CHAMPAIGN – Daily Illini Publisher Mary Cory, in a letter to DI alumni, excoriated the actions of the paper's editor-in-chief in deciding to publish anti-Muslim cartoons.
Now a lawyer representing the editor, Acton Gorton, says Cory and the Illini Media Company, which owns the paper, defamed Gorton.
In her letter, Cory discussed how the independent student newspaper has handled the fallout from printing the cartoons in the Feb. 9 edition of the paper. Cory called Gorton dishonest and reckless and said he deliberately kept other editors and the editorial board in the dark about his plans to publish the cartoons.
An editorial in Thursday's DI made the same allegations.
Cory could not be reached for comment Friday.
Gorton "demonstrated a lack of respect for his colleagues and a total disregard for the need to collaborate or communicate honestly in the newsroom," Cory wrote in her letter. "His focus ... is for the media attention he is receiving personally for his courageous move ... to run the cartoons in his paper, not for the need to publish an excellent newspaper worthy of its reputation."
Gorton calls the statements by Cory and those published over the last week in the DI a "character assassination."
"I've been branded as a rogue editor, as someone who wants to usurp the newsroom to further his own agenda, and that's not what's going on at all," he said.
Gorton hired Hoffman Estates lawyer Junaid Afeef, who wrote to the Illini Media Company and Cory, asking them to stop making defamatory statements about Gorton. Afeef said no legal action has been filed, but he did not rule it out.
Illini Media Company board member Tom Costello said the board doesn't get involved in the daily operations of the newspaper, although it will discuss Afeef's letter.
"We're going to let the students hash this out," Costello said.
Gorton and Opinions Editor Charles Prochaska were suspended Tuesday, the day after the DI ran a lengthy opinion piece criticizing how the decision to run the cartoons was made. A student task force composed of newsroom staff will conduct an internal investigation.
Gorton questions whether he'll get a fair hearing.
He believes the suspension is about the publication of the cartoons, not the decision-making process.
"They say I haven't broken any rules or policies, but they want to have control over what I say," Gorton said. "That's not how a newsroom runs. The editor calls the shots."
He said he consulted a DI night editor and a longtime journalist about whether to publish the cartoons. Gorton said he chose to publish them alongside a column he wrote so he would be the one taking responsibility for them and accepting any criticism, rather than the paper as a whole.
He also said others in the newsroom knew about plans to publish the cartoons, and he had no obligation to clear content through the editorial board.
"My first concern is my readers and what they are wanting to have presented to them," Gorton said. "What I didn't want to happen was chaos in the newsroom that night. There was a potential for people to want to go crazy. What happened was every single member of my editorial board looked at the page and was fully aware of what was going on."
Gorton said if he had it to do over again, he would still choose to publish the cartoons. He said he's received more positive than negative feedback from people around campus. Josh Rohrscheib, a DI columnist and president of the Illinois Student Senate, defended Gorton in his column Monday and wrote that he would resign if Gorton were fired.
Muslim students protested on the Quad Tuesday, and UI Chancellor Richard Herman issued a statement after the cartoons appeared, saying he disagreed with the decision to publish them although the DI had the right to do so. In her letter, Cory said the UI administration has not interfered in the matter.
The DI is an independently-run newspaper and is not owned by the UI.
The UI chapter of the American Association of University Professors issued a statement Friday, saying the organization reserves judgment on the suspension of Gorton and Prochaska, but noting its policy on student rights and responsibilities states, "Editors ... of student publications should be protected from arbitrary suspension and removal because of student, faculty, administration or public disapproval of editorial policy or content."
The Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center, 106 S. Lincoln Ave., U., will hold an open house from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday to discuss Muslims' feelings about the Prophet Muhammad and why they are offended by the cartoons.