Friday, March 4, 2011

Free speech issues.

There were two interesting stories about free speech this week. The national one was the Supreme Court decision that the vile Westboro Baptist Church has a right to picked funerals with their hateful anti-gay signs. This was an excellent decision -- give credit where credit is due. The Westboro creeps were on public land exercising their right to free speech. To have ruled otherwise would have opened the door to the erosion of free speech rights for reasonable but unpopular groups. Furthermore, the more exposure the Westboro group has, the more they are detested. So it's a win-win decision. Groups like Westboro so-called "church" give not just themselves but other anti-gay groups a well-deserved bad name; so let them picket.

The other free speech story is more local. The University of Massachusetts Amherst has an independent -- not financed by the school -- newspaper called The Daily Collegian. In an act of abject cowardice, The Collegian fired one of its student columnists for writing a column containing "controversial" opinions about rape. They also fired the editor who allowed the article to appear.

Of course, the first thing to do is to read the article, so here it is. It presents a point of view and phraseology that may be controversial to some, but is pretty much the standard for writing and attitude about women and sex that prevailed until very recent times. Some of it could have been cut and pasted from current "Christian" and right-wing web sites. For example:

"If a young woman wears a promiscuous outfit to a party, then proceeds to drink and flirt excessively, she should not blame men for her downfall. "

(When was the last time you saw the word "downfall" in this context?)

The author is also a bit confused by logic and statistics, as shown by her statement about Planned Parenthood:

"However, the organization’s website misleads in reporting that abortions constitute only 3 percent of its services. In reality, it performs about 23 percent of all abortions performed each year in the U.S."

Of course, the point isn't whether this is a good or correct article, it's whether its appearance, in the words of The Collegian's Editor-in-Chief, “clearly failed to uphold our institutional standards on content. The members of our Editorial Board were not alerted [to] what was clearly potentially controversial [my italics] content, which is standard procedure so that we can form a consensus.’’ If columnists can only present non-controversial material, then why have columnists at all? Might as well present the editors' editorial and leave it at that.

This is not, strictly speaking, a free speech issue. No one has the "right" to be a columnist or to have an opinion published by a newspaper or aired by a station. Nevertheless, the desire to avoid anything debatable or controversial can lead to a situation where the actual freedoms of speech and press become moot. If editors refuse to publish unpopular views, then college newspapers might just as well be written by the administration, and public newspapers by an elected committee or the Legion of Decency (if there still is such a thing).

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