Monday, April 24, 2006

Idiot Wasting of Time

I don't like blogging about my place of employment, for a number of reasons. On the other hand, there are times when things occur that are just too loony to ignore.

Long story short -- the controversy over the Danish cartoons reached our campus when a faculty member decided to post the cartoons on his office door. The chair of his department asked him to take down the cartoons because the cartoons upset some people. While he didn't agree with the request, he did take down the cartoons.

As chair of my department, I am de facto advisor to the student newspaper. Because of the controversy (for which we also included a story by a student) and because of the fact that quite a few students were talking about the incident (the faculty member is a bit of a character), I asked both principals to write editorials about their theoretical positions on the issue. Both declined. In the interim, two administrators came to me to try and get me to drop the issue.

When the two principals declined to write op-eds, I wrote the following editorial. I never imagined that it would create a firestorm that resulted in its being spiked. It's amazing that so much time and effort (and, quite frankly, anger, at least on my part) was wasted on something so innocuous. I guess the powers that be didn't like a) there was a reference to the issue about the dispute (though non-specified) or that b) there was a prior attempt to spike it.

Free Speech and Responsibility

by Rod Carveth, Communication Arts Department Chair

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in Gitlow v. New York (1925), “Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and if believed it is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at its birth.” Put another way, freedom of speech is easy to defend when it promotes harmony, avoids offensiveness and is presented in a gentle manner. Freedom of speech is harder to defend when it is in the state that it is often found -- provocative, brutish and harsh. Lauren Tyrrell’s editorial illustrates just that point in the contretemps raised by the cartoons depicting Muhammed.

It is interesting that the cartoon controversy should emerge now, almost 40 years from the day when Clarence Brandenburg, the leader of an Ohio affiliate of the Ku Klux Klan, and his associates organized a rally held in Hamilton County, Ohio. At the rally, the group gathered around a large wooden cross, which they burned. Brandenburg then launched into his speech, spewing forth the most derogatory epithets against African Americans and members of the Jewish community as one could imagine. Brandenburg then declared, “We're not a revengent organization, but if our president, our Congress, our Supreme Court continues to suppress the white Caucasian
race, it's possible that there might have to be some revengeance taken.”

Following the rally, Brandenburg was arrested on the grounds that he violated a state law passed in 1919 that prohibited those who "advocate or teach the duty, necessity, or propriety" of violence “as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.” There was no doubt that he gave the speech. Prior to the rally, Brandenburg invited a Cincinnati television station to film the events, which were later broadcast on local and network television. Brandenburg was convicted and sentenced to one to 10 years in prison.

Brandenburg appealed, and the case eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In reversing his conviction, the Court stated that Brandenburg could not be punished for engaging in hateful speech or merely advocating violence. Rather, a speaker could only be punished for intentional “incitement to imminent lawless action.” As Justice William O. Douglas stated in his concurring opinion in Brandenburg, “The quality of advocacy turns on the depth of the conviction, and government has no power to invade that sanctuary of belief and conscience.”

Brandenburg v. Ohio is an important case, in part because it has withstood all challenges to it in the last 40 years, and also because it has insured that even the most unpopular speech has legal protection from interference by the government.

But, with the freedom that Brandenburg brings comes a heavy responsibility.
Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you are absolved from considering the impact of what you say.

For example, in a different way, the cartoon controversy recently touched the Marywood campus. Briefly, an employee posted the cartoons on the employee’s office door. The employee’s supervisor directed the employee to take down the cartoons, and the employee complied.

This, of course, is an oversimplified version of the story, and, as of press
time, the story may not have yet reached a conclusion. But, the question arose as to what the Wood Word should do.

When dealing with potentially controversial issues on campus, it is the policy of the Wood Word to approach the issue in a fair and balanced manner. If we were going to do a news story on this incident, we would make sure that all sides had an opportunity to respond. As this was, at its core, a personnel issue, tackling the incident as a news story didn’t seem appropriate.

Instead, we invited both principals to write an editorial describing their views on the cartoons and freedom of speech. We asked that they stay away from the personnel issue. Rather, we wanted them to discuss their philosophical views on freedom of speech and its possible limits. Both principals declined to do so. Our expectation that the individuals could easily steer the philosophical elements of the issue away from the traps of the personnel issue may have been an unreasonable one.

In the meantime, an administrator did approach the paper asking that it be careful in how the issue was to be dealt with. To be clear, the administrator did not directly advocate censoring a story or an editorial about the cartoon. Instead, the administrator appealed to the value of civility on campus.

Marywood is a very civil campus. People here get along unusually well, and are extremely respectful of one another. But, with that, there is a downside – the tendency to self-censor, to not deal with an issue if it might offend anyone.

In the end, our decision to present the cartoon controversy was guided by two principles. First, the best way to deal with controversial issues to generate more speech, not less speech, thereby letting the community at large make its own decisions. The second principle is that we are confident that the Marywood community knows the distinction of having disagreements without being disagreeable.

One note -- the reference to only one administrator is because one of the administrators also serves on the editorial board.

What's too bad is that we don't currently have a journalism program, but there's plenty of student interest in one. I could sell it, an important consideration for a private school. But, the school has to be willing to support important concepts such as the First Amendment and the willingness to accept the fact that not everything is perfect on campus, and it's obviously not ready to do so.

Sad, very sad.


Blogger newsieflewsie said...

Bravo Doc Rod. Thanks for tipping me off to your site.

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