Tuesday, June 4, 2019

UA Discipline of Underground Newspaper Sparked 1912 Student Protests

Postcard of UA protest, courtesy of Arkansas State Archives

Thirty-six University of Arkansas students met in 1912 to discuss their concerns about what they thought was an oppressive disciplinary culture on campus. The group agreed to create an underground newspaper to make their voices heard.

Tensions over discipline had been building since the beginning of the spring semester. At issue was the faculty’s issuance of sanctions against students, often without hearings. Consequently, many students felt faculty members were being irrational and dictatorial.

In February, students met and formed the Iconoclast Publishing Co. with the goal of exposing what they considered to be unfair treatment by faculty. They created a newspaper, called X-Ray, and decided to use the motto “Turn on the Light.” The newspaper would take aim at UA’s policies and inform readers about how faculty acted with tyranny against students.

In the X-Ray’s first publication on Monday, Feb. 26, the lead article said, “This paper has as its aim the tearing down of the old and flagrant abuse at this institution and to help her enter upon a new era.” In another article, editors mocked faculty in a parody of Hamlet’s soliloquy, “We scorn the danger of being flunked, or fired, or the hundred other punishments meted out to a rebel by a monarch.” 

The paper was published on green paper and included all the editors’ names on its masthead. Its editors took on issues the faculty-controlled campus newspaper couldn’t, including favoritism among UA scholarship and discipline committees.

Faculty response was quick. The morning of the paper’s release, members met with the Board of Trustees to discuss the X-Ray. Faculty said the X-Ray’s publication was an “unwarranted and mischievous attack upon the school administration.” Then university President John Tillman cited a 1905 law that prohibited unauthorized publications, then expelled all 36 members of the editorial committee.

The student body was aghast at the severe response. About 300 students signed a pledge that morning to walk out unless the university agreed to reinstate the students. When the first bell rang, more than 300 students walked off campus, led by the university marching band. As they marched, townspeople along the route cheered the students. More students joined the cause, and by the end of the day, more than 500 students had walked out in protest. Classes were canceled and tensions quickly rose between students and faculty.

In support of the strike, many businesses in Fayetteville decked out in green, the color of the X-Ray. People in town rushed to get a copy of the student newspaper to see what had outraged the faculty. Outside of Fayetteville, parents and friends of the expelled students watched the unfolding drama anxiously.

Many of the expelled students were from prominent families whose members came to Fayetteville to plead their children’s case before the Board of Trustees. David A. Gates, a state tax commissioner, and E.B. Kinsworthy, a former state attorney general, both had sons on the X-Ray’s editorial staff and both came to Fayetteville.

The Arkansas Democrat weighed in on the controversy, saying the whole matter was “a tempest in a teapot.” In the paper’s view, the X-Ray was not as controversial as the response would make it seem. “We had expected to find the publication literally reeking in a spirit of insubordinate anarchism,” Arkansas Democrat editors wrote. “Instead ‘The X-Ray’ seems to be considerably along the lines of milk-and-water journalism.”

Faculty demanded protesting students return to class and set a Feb. 29 deadline. On the morning of the deadline, not a single student returned. Instead, they met at the Ozark Theater for a rally in support of the ongoing student strike. During the rally, students passed a resolution defending the X-Ray and its editors on First Amendment grounds and wrote “the action of the faculty in expelling the promoters of the ‘X-Ray’ was ill-advised, intemperate and unjust.”

Neither side was willing to budge. Threats to expel the protestors went unheeded, so Gov. George Donaghey, who also was chairman of the Board, called a public hearing for March 3. The expelled students were invited to make their case and told the board the X-Ray was intended to make the university a better institution for students.

The Board repealed the 1905 rule, saying it was “unduly oppressive and operates so as to deny to the student body the right of a free and public expression of an honest opinion upon matters pertaining to their own rights as students.”

The 36 students were reinstated. Protests ended, and students returned to campus having learned a valuable civics lesson about the power of free speech, civil disobedience and public opinion.
For more information on Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall, Suite 215, or call 501-682-6900. Information is also available online at http://archives.arkansas.gov/.