When a student at Wesleyan wrote an op-ed in the student paper last month questioning whether the Black Lives Matter movement has had unintended consequences, protests erupted and the president spoke out, essentially, on the student’s right to free speech.
“Freedom of speech, in its popular understanding, does not protect Black Lives Matter advocates who are trying to survive in a racist world, but instead protects the belief systems of dominant people—despite the extent of their heightened ignorance,” read “an Open Letter to the Wesleyan Community from Students of Color” dated September 25. “The debate has become whether members of our community even deserve, not only to exist on this campus, but simply to live.”
“By focusing on the freedom of speech instead of students’ lives and ability to safely exist on this campus, you are practicing censorship and you are partaking in racism.”
Six days earlier, the president of Wesleyan, Michael Roth, sent out an “open letter” of his own in a blog post co-signed by Provost Joyce Jacobsen and Antonio Farias, Vice-President for Equity and Inclusion. “Some students not only have expressed their disagreement with the op-ed but have demanded apologies, a retraction and have even harassed the author and the newspaper’s editors,” they stated. “Some are claiming that the op-ed was less speech than action: it caused harm and made people of color feel unsafe.”
“Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.”
None of the above served to answer what should be a core question of all journalism training: How accurate was the op-ed, which appeared on September 14, 2015? Even though it was clearly labelled a commentary, we expect, or should expect editorial writing to live up to the premise President Obama laid out in one of his meetings with Republicans, “You’re entitled to your own opinion but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”
It turns out that the offending column is actually a pretty good piece of opinion journalism. Delivered in measured prose, the writer, Bryan Stascavage, was clearly striving for balance and, yes, inclusion. Here’s an excerpt:
“I talked to a Black Lives Matter supporter, Michael Smith ’18, who recoiled when I told him I was wondering if the movement was legitimate. This is not questioning their claims of racism among the police, or in society itself. Rather, is the movement itself actually achieving anything positive? Does it have the potential for positive change?”
“There is evidence to support both views. Police forces around the country are making more of an effort to be more transparent, have undergone investigations to root out racist officers and policies, and have forced the conversation to the front pages after being buried on the back pages for far too long.”
“On the other hand, following the Baltimore riots, the city saw a big spike in murders. Good officers, like the one I talked to, go to work every day even more worried that they won’t come home.”
Give it a careful read, along with the open letter and the president’s blog post. It’s worth it.