College Newspapers and the Uncomfortable Necessity of Dissent

This is not to say that opinions cannot or do not hurt. That would be equally ridiculous. However, to confuse one's own emotional response to an opinion with a factual assessment of the piece's value or intent is dangerous and irresponsible.
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On Sunday, September 20th, Wesleyan University's elected student assembly (the WSA) debated a petition to revoke funding to the University's official newspaper, the Wesleyan Argus. Signed by 147 students and faculty, the petition arose in response to an opinion article published in the newspaper by sophomore Bryan Stascavage entitled "Why Black Lives Matter Isn't What You Think." The piece, which was highly controversial upon publishing, draws parallels between extremist anti-police sentiment in the Black Lives Matter movement (citing incidents where protesters deployed chants such as "pigs in a blanket, fry 'em like bacon") and open "riots" with increased severity on behalf of law enforcement. Stascavage concludes that, "the movement is not legitimate, or at the very least [is] hypocritical."

Since the publication of the article, Wesleyan students expressed intense distaste for the both the article and the Wesleyan Argus, arguing that to publish Stascavage's opinion was to inherently endorse it, and that, the willingness to publish the op-ed, combined with the relatively few volunteers of color writing for the Argus was evidence that the paper itself was, if not a racist institution, one that plainly "neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color."

Upset students twice visited newspaper staff meetings. At the first visit, the students dictated a preliminary list of "demands," including the printing of the words, "We apologize. Black lives matter" as the header of the subsequent Argus' front page. Instead, the paper ran a lengthy op-ed written by the two editors-in-chief of the Argus, in which both apologized for the pain caused by the piece, the factual problems with Stascavage's argument but not for publishing the opinion.

During the second of the two visits, students put forward a version of the petition submitted to the WSA, insisting that a number of demands be met if the the Argus wished to retain its funding. Among these is a blank space reserved on the front page of every issue in which writers of color do not submit as a symbol of the paper's openness. Further discussion of the petition is scheduled for a Town Hall Meeting on September 27th.

There is indeed a lot to consider in approaching the disagreement on campus. I myself am a writer and editor for the Wesleyan Argus (I work with the Arts Section), and so the threat of defunding the paper has a great deal of personal resonance for me. In addressing my own concerns with the campus discourse, however, I do not speak for the Wesleyan Argus. All opinions I express under my byline are mine and mine alone. Considering that much of the discursive chaos around the controversial article seems to revolve on ownership of opinion I think it necessary to make that clear.

With that out of the way: I strongly disagree with nearly everything Mr. Stascavage said in his piece. On a political and moral level, I am absolutely opposed to it. I also think it is patently absurd that the Wesleyan Argus should be penalized for publishing it, or that, by doing what the Opinion section of the paper promises to do for all submitted opinions, the Argus has somehow endorsed the article's legitimacy.

Furthermore, to see such a vocal contingent of Wesleyan students argue that because Mr. Stascavage's writing expresses an unpopular opinion on campus to which some take personal offense, the Argus has somehow practiced hate speech is depressing, only more so because it comes on the heels of President Obama rightly claiming that college students are coddled ideologically.

This is not to say that opinions cannot or do not hurt. That would be equally ridiculous. However, to confuse one's own emotional response to an opinion with a factual assessment of the piece's value or intent is dangerous and irresponsible. It flies in the face of free expression and takes for granted the relative discursive security of college campuses where these sorts of conflations most often happen.

A few students have called "Why Black Lives Matter" an example of hate speech, and claim that the thrust of the article (and, later, the Argus' refusal to immediately disavow it on the front page) argues that black lives do not, in fact, matter, and that police brutality and overreach is okay. Again, this is simply incorrect. First, hate speech refers to a very specific subset of expression. For something to be considered hate speech it must be conduct or a gesture that "may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group." Not only does Mr. Stascavage's piece make no such gesture, but its criticism is not even directed at a protected group. Whether or not you support them, Black Lives Matter is a social and political movement, not a protected class. Second, nowhere in the article does Mr. Stascavage look to excuse the killing of black civilians by police officers. In fact, at certain points, he expresses his empathy for the frustrations of many activists. His criticisms are instead directed at those who, he believes, categorize law enforcement officers unjustly and inspire violence against them.

That any of these things should be punishable by silencing Mr. Stascavage or the Argus as a whole (as is the thrust of a movement to defund) is unthinkable. Those who believe that the Argus is in the business of furthering a political agenda would be disappointed to find that the paper has a long history of publishing nearly every opinion submitted including (especially in recent days) those harshly critical of the paper itself. To penalize the paper for publishing an unpopular opinion is to set a dangerous precedent in which the difficult, messy work of having to argue against Mr. Stascavage and his points is set aside in favor of simply trying to make sure those points are not heard. Unfortunately for those who disagree with the opinion piece strongly enough to endorse that gamble, their silencing of Mr. Stascavage does nothing to change his mind or the minds of people who agree with him. All that it does is ensure that conversation remains one sided while actual measurable progress stalls. Certainly, it might be easier not to have to hear those who disagree with you, but that does not make them any less likely to fight for their beliefs. It is only in a truly open forum that true political or social progress can be achieved.

So, is this a freedom of speech issue? Yes and no. Those who argue that the defunding of a college newspaper by an elected student body at a private university does not actually violate the press' constitutional protections are indeed correct. The Wesleyan Argus is not having their freedoms violated by the government, and I don't think anyone of the paper would argue otherwise. However, it should be relatively clear to all that whether or not the actual letter of the Bill of Rights is being violated, the spirit of that First Amendment protection is absolutely being threatened. It might be easy to say that the letter is all that matters, but all of us on college campuses, especially when it comes to that First Amendment, tend to assume a degree of soft protection from the spirit of the law, so that we can protest and debate and file petitions as we please.

On September 19th, Wesleyan President Michael Roth published a piece on the Wesleyan blog, entitled "Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech," which is perhaps the clearest distillation of the core issue that I have yet seen. Those who argue that the Wesleyan Argus should not be penalized for being willing to publish an unpopular opinion are not endorsing murder or even suggesting that there must be a trade off between the safety of students of color and the ability for all students to speak freely. That both can be protected at the same time is the ultimate, and most important point. To pit these two values against each other is to misunderstand both of them and to do a great disservice to the whole Wesleyan campus. Furthermore, to defund the Wesleyan Argus is to misunderstand the nature of journalism and the nature of discussion, and to rob both of the frustrating but necessary richness that allows any community or institution to markedly move forward.

The Wesleyan Argus is committed to making itself a safe place for all points of view, and -- in my own personal experience -- wants nothing more than as wide and deep a staff as possible. But the limiting of acceptable viewpoints, the silencing of difficult conversation, makes the paper a safe and proper platform for exactly nobody.

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