Unveiling The Cord’s 1991 shut down

When I was first hired as Editor-in-Chief of The Cord in March of this year, I thought I understood the legacy this newspaper had. “Thought” being the key word.

The Cord was first published in 1926, under the name “The College Cord.” I trust that you can do the math, but to put it further into perspective, that was 90 years ago. For 90 years, students of Wilfrid Laurier University have been coming together to make the same product. While this product has changed in style several times, the goal has always remained the same: to provide a news source for the students at Laurier, but also to provide journalistic opportunities for students wishing to learn and gain experience. For 90 years, that’s why we operate.

Of course I understood all this when I was hired. Of course I knew our purpose and of course I loved our purpose, but it wasn’t until one day when I was working a shift at my part-time job in Conestoga Mall, that I realized the magnitude of our purpose.

I was at the cash register, ringing through a customer. He was middle-aged and wearing a Laurier letter jacket. I hadn’t started my job as Editor-in-Chief just yet, but I always took every opportunity I could to talk to strangers about the school I loved most.

“Do you work at Laurier?” I asked him.

“Alumni, actually,” he said, “but I still live in the area. Do you go there?”

“I do. Just finishing up my degree,” I responded. “I actually was just hired as the Editor-in-Chief of The Cord, the student newspaper. I don’t know if you know it.”

That caught his attention. He smiled and said, “no kidding, eh? I was the Sports Editor in ‘91.”

His name was Brock Greenhalgh and he had been on The Cord’s Editorial Board before I was even born. We talked for a long time –— long enough for my boss to give me an angry look. He mentioned that ‘91 was a crazy year for The Cord, because that was the year they were shut down.

Now he had my attention.

I asked why and he said that in 1991, The Cord ran an article about safe sex in the gay community that had been highly controversial. The school didn’t like it and The Cord staff were locked out of their office for almost a week. We didn’t have the time to talk about it in full detail as I was supposed to be assisting other customers, but I thanked him for the chat.

Greenhalgh and I touched base a couple months later and I was still thinking about what happened in 1991. I wanted to know more.

He gave me the name of the Editor-in-Chief of 1991, Tony Burke. He didn’t have his contact info, but who needs that when there’s Facebook? Sure enough, Burke was easy enough to find, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg.

Before setting up a meeting with Burke, who now teaches biblical studies at York University, I wanted to read the issues from 1991 for myself. I wanted to see what the big controversy was. Because the Laurier Library archives all The Cord’s issues online, this was very easy. With the help of my coworkers, I found two issues: the one that caused the shutdown, which was published on February 28, 1991 and the first issue back on stands, which was published on March 14, 1991.

The February 28 issue talked about homophobia in more than just one article. It’s hard for students these days, including myself, to picture social issues before we were born. What we do know, however, is that the LGBTQ community is still fighting oppression today, in a world where same sex marriage is becoming widely legalized and universities have support systems, like our very own Diversity and Equity Office and Rainbow Centre.

In 1991, those factors weren’t so prevalent. According to Burke, Laurier was a very conservative school in the early ‘90s.

The Cord, however, was talking about these issues. Maybe not in the same way we’d talk about them today, as language is always evolving, but they were openly talking about the LGBTQ community and issues they faced. In 1991, a column called “The Pink Ink” ran every issue. This column was written by a gay student, who was not openly gay, but wanted to write under a pseudonym about LGBTQ issues at Laurier. This column ran all year.

Burke explained that The Cord also had some troubles in 1990. There was an offensive article printed and a libelous lawsuit under their belt before Burke took the job as Editor-in-Chief. He knew he was already under the magnifying glass.

The article in question that Burke wrote in 1991 was called, “Another student paper trounced for printing questionable material: Eroticized safe sex article blitzed.” The article was about another article that was featured in Memorial University’s student paper, The Muse.

The article that was featured in The Muse was attempting to eroticise gay sex. They did this because at the time, AIDS was directly associated with promiscuity in the gay community. The Muse wanted to debunk this by saying gay men can have multiple partners. Having a lot of safe sex doesn’t put you at risk of AIDS, but having unprotected sex, just one time, can put anyone at risk.

The article in The Muse was erotic fiction, published for the sole purpose to prove that we should be able to talk about two men having sex in realistic ways, all the while trying to abolish the idea of irresponsible promiscuity. The two men featured in this snippet (it’s maybe 100 words) are engaging in protected sex, but it’s still erotic.

Ultimately, this point was lost due to the erotic content. It was too shocking for 1991. Hell, some might even find it shocking now.

But, The Cord reprinted it to correspond with an article Burke wrote about the punishments The Muse faced. He interviewed Padraic Brake, one of the original authors of the story and talked about how Memorial University responded. The president of Memorial University said their reputation had been tarnished by this piece of erotic fiction.

Burke’s story was a news story. He reprinted the original story for context. And as a result, The Cord was locked out of their office and pulled off stands for a little less than one week.

“You do this thing because you think it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right position, yet, it has all these ramifications. Everyone’s lives get affected in various ways as a result, including mine,” Burke said.

After the February 28 issue was put on stands, and then immediately pulled off, the doors to The Cord’s office, which at the time was in the Students’ Union building, were locked. Their accounts, including Burke’s salary, were frozen.

In 1991, The Cord and all of Wilfrid Laurier University Student Publications were funded through the Students’ Union, unlike today as we now operate as a registered not-for-profit organization, autonomous from the school.

“The main issue,” Burke said, “wasn’t with the message of the article.”

They had been talking about LGBTQ issues long before this piece with “The Pink Ink.”

“The issue was that the information was presented inappropriately.”

I can’t make assumptions about 1991. I wasn’t there. But, Burke and I discussed, hypothetically, how this short piece of erotic fiction would have gone over if the sex was shared between a heterosexual couple. Being openly homophobic in 1991 wasn’t as frowned upon then as it is now.

During the lockout, Burke said he mainly made phone calls to narrow down where they stood, legally. He and the president of Student Publications figured out what their rights were. They started a petition to re-open, where fellow students could show their support.

Within less than a week, their office was opened to them and they were allowed to continue on with production.

“It felt like being pulled into the principal’s office. [It was] somewhat patronizing,” Burke said. “Basically they said, you can open, but there has to be some oversight. So I wasn’t considered a responsible enough person to be EIC anymore, in a sense.”

Burke, however, had no regrets at the time for running the piece and he still doesn’t now.

“One of the lessons that came out of it was that you really have to think further ahead and think about what the implications are and I don’t know if I would do anything differently, but I really didn’t think it would cause as much of a sensation, or a controversy, as it did. Because to me, it just seemed like a clear injustice and I didn’t see anything wrong with [the original article printed by The Muse]. It was a good thing to have out there in the community.”

The next issue following the one that had been pulled off stands, definitely stood out. The name was changed from The Cord to “the cord” (with quotation marks) because the team felt it just wasn’t the same anymore. They felt as if their agency was lost. The cover featured a collage of all the hateful emails Burke and the team received about the article, with the Fundamental Freedoms printed on top.

The issue featured articles about how The Cord was shut down, as well as a couple pieces discussing homophobia at Laurier — along with a strongly worded letter written by Burke, himself.

My favourite part, though, was the “Heterosexuality Quiz” on page 14. This quiz, which was purely satire, featured questions like, “What do you think caused your heterosexuality?” “When and how did you first decide you were heterosexual?” and “Why do heterosexuals feel compelled to seduce others into your lifestyle?”

“I suspect people thought we were a little bit full of ourselves,” Burke said.

Ultimately, the decision to run this piece turned out to be a domino effect that none of the 1991 Editorial Board ever expected and I think that’s why I’m so fascinated by this story. I’ve been with The Cord for four years and we have written about LGBTQ issues numerous times. The fact of the matter is that those issues do affect a large population of students at Laurier.

But still, I, myself, was torn with whether or not to include the snippet from The Muse in this piece for context, just as Burke had 25 years ago. In all honesty, because of its history, I couldn’t do it.

Burke said that this controversy caused him to branch away from journalism. He also said that members of the Editorial Board, who had nothing to do with the reprint, were asked about the controversy in job interviews, or post-graduate program interviews. Cord staff members who had nothing to do with “Another student paper trounced for printing questionable material: Eroticized safe sex article blitzed,” such as Sports Editor, Greenhalgh, were associated with this issue well after the fact.

“It’s a university. It’s all adults. This is not a high school publication … and we can’t all be adults and see a disclaimer [at the beginning of an article] and think, okay, well maybe I shouldn’t read that. It came across as a juvenile response to adult material,” said Burke.

After talking with Burke, I thought again about what our purpose is. Why does The Cord even exist? Like I said before: to provide a news source for the students at Laurier, but also to provide journalistic opportunities for students wishing to learn and gain experience.

Did this instance, in 1991, fail that purpose?

“It was certainly a big lesson for everyone and it certainly models the real world because if the Students’ Union is our government, or the university [administration] is our government, we’re supposed to write in criticism of those things,” said Burke.

That ideology hasn’t changed. We are still here to offer the students, staff and surrounding community an objective, critical viewpoint of those who govern our school. We’re lucky now that that relationship is undoubtedly more respectful than the one in 1991.

Burke also remarked on what this situation did for LGBTQ rights, at the time. “I think it brought [LGBTQ] rights and experiences to the Laurier community, which was very conservative [in 1991],” he said.

This piece sure did get people talking. No question about that.

I kept thinking, however, of the students who run The Cord now. My coworkers. My friends. My family. How would we survive seeing something we love so much being taken away? What would we do? How would I react, as a leader?

As much as we take ourselves seriously as a campus newspaper, being a member of The Cord’s management team, Editorial Board or senior staff is an extracurricular. We do it to gain experience and to resume build, but we also do it because we love the paper and we love each other.

So, I asked Burke what happened to his team.

“We were all quite united in our misery, or in our resolution [sic],” he said. “The next three issues, where we went “anarchy,” shows that we’re all united … if we weren’t tight knit before, we were certainly tight knit after.”

In my four years with The Cord, I’ve met “Cordies” from five years ago, ten years ago and now 25 years ago. The funny thing is that their experiences all seem so removed, so far away. But after talking to them for five minutes, we really aren’t that different.

We’ve all experienced the same stresses, the same passion, the same level of friendship, the same dedication, just at different periods of time.

While I hope The Cord never repeats 1991 — we very much enjoy staying on stands — hearing this story and hearing about a passionate group of young journalists 25 years ago who fought for what they thought was right, doesn’t deserve to be buried as a piece of dark history.

So here’s to 90 years of volunteerism, friendships, creating, experience, agency and the occasional controversy.

Happy birthday, buddy. Here’s to another 90 years of providing a news source for the students at Laurier and also giving student journalists a place to call home.

Leave a Reply