It is probably clear that the false and contemptible statements ideas in Caelan MacTavish’s Oct. 18 column, and the Daily Vanguard’s decision to publish his piece, are protected by the first amendment [“A city divided,” Oct. 18.]. Because the Bill of Rights established that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” MacTavish’s offensive words are legal – and, most agree, they should be.
What might be less clear is whether the legal right to “free speech” requires a newspaper to publish every idea. Is it reasonable for a decent newspaper to publish a column blaming “the Jews” for historic anti-Semitism and the mass murder of innocents in the Holocaust? Is it ethical for a reputable newspaper to carry a piece arguing that some inherent African American trait is to blame for that group’s mistreatment over the years? In other words, should a newspaper be a vehicle for bigotry, or should editors take an ethical stand against publishing reckless hate speech?
Consider this: The KKK is legally permitted to march in public squares.
Yet, for ethical reasons, they probably would not be welcome to demonstrate at most Portland State student groups’ meetings. Similarly, just as legal but hateful groups need not be welcomed by the public, legal but hateful speech need not be disseminated by a newspaper.
Indeed, there is a line that most decent publications will not cross.
The letters editor at the New York Times summarized it well when he explained that the newspaper is “eager to print all points of view – liberal, conservative and anything in between,” but that the views must be “expressed according to the rules of civil discourse” and “within the bounds of good taste.”
Other editors agree. After the Tucson Citizen published an offensive letter, the editor and publisher apologized for the newspaper’s “serious error in judgment,” and said of the letter: “We should not have printed it. We are sorry that we did. … [W]e in the media should strive to encourage as much free expression as we can. This week, however, I saw a limit to that, and the Citizen went beyond the limit.” Referring to a racially charged comic strip published in the University of Illinois Daily Illini and that newspaper’s subsequent apology, a staff editorial at the Indiana University’s Daily Student observed that the cartoon was “hate speech and never should have been considered for publication. … College newspapers are an open space for students to practice journalism, but professional rules and ethics must be followed.”
In short, the issue isn’t whether to restrict certain speech; it is about whether to welcome and amplify it. It’s not about censorship, its about judgment and ethics. Provocative ideas that threaten the status quo are an entirely appropriate part of civil discourse. On the other hand, columns that promote baseless hatred and spread incendiary misinformation have no place in a respectable newspaper.
The writer is a senior research analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a media-monitoring organization