Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A streaker is a criminal, but a college newspaper that puts his full frontal photo on the front page is just exercising its First Amendment rights

We live in strange times, zero tolerance times, where the slightest male sexual infraction is punished by some law named after a dead kid, often with an almost sadistic overkill. In society's zeal to protect women and children from legitimately evil men, it happily sweeps young men guilty of nothing more than childish lewdness away with truly dangerous predators. Thirty-two states now register streakers as sex offenders. Others register college guys caught publicly urinating in an alley because they drank a little too much. Others famously register teen males who had consensual sex with their slightly younger girlfriends. If all the sex offenders were corralled into a new state, it would be more populous than three existing states. The male sexual infraction industry is exploding, and no “science” is too bizarre or inhumane to try out on men and boys accused or convicted of such offenses under the guise of learning which of them should languish in custody. This includes penile plethysmograph testing, a sort a junk science polygraph of penises, and “masturbatory satiation” sessions -- methods that a witch doctor might feel uncomfortable employing.

But you know all that. Now consider this: at East Carolina University's November 5 football game against USM, John Sieglinger, 21, stripped to his birthday suit and ran onto the field. He was tackled and arrested for misdemeanor indecent exposure and first-degree. He could have been charged with a felony, but he wasn't, which means he won't be required to register as a sex offender.  The streak was met with the usual mixed reactions: a lot of students were thoroughly amused by it, but other people believed the incident would scar the innocent children for life, because surely they've never seen a flaccid naked man from a distance on TV or the Internet.

The interesting part of the story is what happened the following Tuesday. ECU's student newspaper did something without much precedent in this country: it put an unedited photo of Mr. Sieglinger streaking -- full frontal nudity -- on the front page above the fold.

“It’s pretty in your face,” Lauren Morgan, an ECU student said. “When I looked at it, I was like, ‘They actually showed it, wow.’” Yes, Lauren. They actually showed "it."

The newspaper was hit with comments ranging from this: "People gonna hate on your decision to show a wiener on the front page but just know I encourage it," and "I will frame the front page of Tuesday’s paper," to this: "You owe the entire student body, as well as the university, an apology. We are trying to erase our awful reputation and having a non-censored photo on the cover is a disgrace."

Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for ECU's student affairs, was one of those who was not amused. She said in a statement: “The decision by the East Carolinian to publish a photo of a streaker that showed full-frontal nudity was in very poor taste. The leadership at East Carolina University does not agree with that decision and does not support it.” But, Hardy pointed out, the paper is an independent, student-run paper and ultimately the decision on what to print rests with the student journalists.

The female editor of the paper issued an unapologetic statement: "The photos regarding the streaker in the Nov. 8 edition of the East Carolinian were purposely published. The news editor, managing editor and myself made the collaborative decision to publish the unedited photos. This decision was made because we felt that our audience, which is primarily the ECU student body, should have access to unedited and factual photos of the streaking incident at last Saturday’s ECU football game. While the photos may be seen as offensive to some, the photos were not meant to be seen as sexually suggestive or insulting, but instead an accurate account of Saturday’s events.”

We do live in strange times, don't we?  A guy who bares his penis streaking a football game is a criminal, but the school newspaper that bares that same penis on its front page above the fold is just reporting the news. The newspaper cloaks itself in the First Amendment; the streaker is cloaked in nothing more than his birthday suit. The newspaper is applauded in some quarters for doing something edgy, bold, and hip; the streaker is regarded in some quarters as a pariah, and he probably won't be asked to babysit the neighbor kids anytime soon. The newspaper undoubtedly saw a spike in its readership because of the picture; the streaker is lucky not to be on a sex offenders' registry.

Does this strike anyone else as peculiar? 

This is not to suggest that there's a moral equivalence between the guy who actually whips it out and the newspaper that covers the whipping out. It is to suggest that finding a bright-line between the streaker's decision to go balls out at a football game, and the newspaper editor's decision to put those balls on the front page, may not be as easy as some think.

It is also to suggest that we do live in strange times. Strange, indeed.