Robert C. Maynard

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

On [May 29, 1973], The Washington Post and about a dozen other American newspapers incurred the wrath of hundreds of their readers by making the decision to omit, on grounds of fairness, a popular comic strip, "Doonesbury" by Garry Trudeau….

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Doonesbury's well-earned popularity is based on the pithy way in which its characters sink their teeth into contemporary subjects. The strip is created with a sure-handed sophistication that is pointed even when it isn't funny.

The reason the Tuesday strip was dropped is that it was, in the opinion of the editors of The Washington Post, entirely too pointed and overstepped the bounds of decency, fairness and good judgment.

What Trudeau did was have his "WBBY" commentator give a little Watergate rundown which concluded with the judgment about a principal in the case as being "GUILTY! GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY!!"

Howard Simons, managing editor of The Washington Post, explained his decision to drop the strip by saying:

"If anyone is going to find any defendant guilty, it's going to be the due process of justice, not a comic strip artist. We cannot have one standard for the news pages and another for the comics."…

It has long been recognized that cartoons are very much the creation of their authors and the points of view they express are granted a special license…. Any number of strips have expressed a variety of political viewpoints, many of them quite contrary to the editorial stand of the newspapers in which they appear….

What gives the current Doonesbury controversy special status is that it is a stark case of the conflict of rights. Garry Trudeau clearly has a right to his opinion about Watergate. It can even be argued that the way he portrays his commentator, Mark, declaring a Watergate defendant "Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!!" suggests something of the extreme view that many take of the Watergate case.

For all that, other rights have their place. These are the rights of a defendant to be considered innocent until proven guilty. It is that aspect of the matter which is so disturbing….

Responsible journalists have taken pains to make a distinction between finding that there is a probable cause to believe wrongdoing has occurred and a flat conclusion of guilt.

To many, it has seemed at times a distinction without any substantive difference. And, to be sure, there have been times when major news organizations have made assertions in the Watergate case which would have been far better left for the determination of a judicial body.

I am very much of the belief that in a free society, it is always dangerous to suppress expression. I am equally sure that in a nation of laws, it is profoundly dangerous for comic strip artists to ignore the fundamental right of defendants to be presumed innocent.

If I had to weigh those rights in the Doonesbury case, I'd say that Mark and his creator, Trudeau, must yield. It is even more profoundly so for the reason that it is a cartoon appearing in the comic section. I'd like it never to be said that young readers received their first notions about fundamental rights from the comics and concluded that folk-hero characters are allowed to declare people guilty in advance of their trials….

[There] is in my mind a line across which responsible expression cannot step without running the risk of excision. Trudeau, in my opinion, stepped across that line in having Mark speak as he did.

Robert C. Maynard, "The Comic Strip Isn't a Court," in The Washington Post (© 1973, The Washington Post), May 31, 1973, p. A 18.

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