Misunderstandings of the First Amendment and working as a newspaper editor

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 4:03 PM

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I'm going to leave this right here, since I'll be referencing it:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
I currently have three active jobs and another job which much more rarely comes up; two of my hats are newspaper editor for sports and culture and opinion columnist for my campus rag. I spent a year as a politics, academic and sex blogger, and a total of three years as a production assistant and editor for various newspapers and literary magazines. One of my consistent frustrations has been a seemingly broad misunderstanding of the First Amendment: I tend to end up with editors-in-chief who misunderstand the First Amendment to mean that they print everything or nearly everything sent to them, no matter the result of printing it, or dealing with a larger public which believes that the First Amendment guarantees them the ability to say anything and have whatever godawful verbal diarrhea they spewed recognized as of equal importance to anything anyone else might have to say.

I went into my boss' office this last week and begged him not to print a letter praising Sharia law and advocating for Muslims to use violence against perceived threats to their safety and religious practices. The letter writer has been repeatedly printed in our newspaper, and every time we print him, the regular responses include obvious phobias of brown people, threats against the newspaper or letter writer, and accusations of racism, none of which are critiques of the fact that the writer is calling openly for violence and the, frankly, horrors of religious law systems.

He ended up not printing it, for which I thanked him effusively. Unfortunately, while I manage to convince him not to print calls for violence and religious law for Muslims, I cannot convince him not to print letters from Christians calling for a religious re-write of college policies, discrimination against people who are gay/accusations of prejudice for people who are gay and write about the funding of Christian businesses or boycotting Christian organizations on campus, letters calling for the use of college funds for religious ceremonies on college grounds, or letters accusing the paper of prejudice against Christianity for also printing letters critical of these things. He recently gave a Christian relationship/lifestyle columnist a job writing badly misspelled columns about how Jesus is the solution for relationship problems (the letter writer wanted to know how to 'make' women love him; my response would have been to tell the letter writer to see a therapist for his control issues and to talk about the relationship violence and coercion implicit in that idea).

My editor-in-chief is not religious; in fact, I believe from our conversations that he is an atheist. He cynically responds that he has to have something to print, and that these letters provoke reading and response, and besides, something, something, First Amendment rights. This is where the conversation takes a turn for the worse; that general sort of idea that the college newspaper owes it to students to print anything they're interested in seeing. I believe this is a mistake and a misunderstanding of the First Amendment.

Let's start with the fact that not all opinions are equal, by which I mean equally informed or well expressed, a qualification for being published.

There is only so much a turd can be polished.

The Christians who write into the paper write about how Jesus has saved them from all those college traps of free-thinking and of disbelief, both of which are insulting and irrelevant assertions. Their letters are, for the most part, rife with every grammar problem imaginable and demand that the First Amendment allows them any space they want to talk about Jesus.

They are wrong; the First Amendment guarantees that laws not be passed to prevent or encourage them to have any particular religion or to prevent them from speaking to critique the government. The college newspaper is not a governing body and has no responsibility to provide them a venue. Moreover, the college newspaper draws almost all of its funding from ad sales, not from student activities budgets, thanks to the recession we're in. Religion is no reason to circumvent the regular voting process for allocating funding to student organizations.  The funding for the paper which is drawn from public sources is allocated through a student-elected panel.

Religious outrage from the community, online in the forums and in terms of letters, greets any letter which points out the fact that these letters contain no particular attempt to convince anyone or evidence, and instead alternate between insult and accusation; the letters add nothing, and are essentially designed to provoke response so that the letter writer can feel persecuted. I don't think all the letter writers understand that they're being insulting, but I have trouble believing that they can continue to cling to that idea authentically when their insults are pointed out to them. These letters tend, almost without fail, to cite the First Amendment and interpret it to mean that they are owed space in the newspaper and more, the agreement of the editors and readers and the silencing of critique.

As the de facto state religion (see the ceremonies for Congress, the House, the swearing in of the President, etc), Christians have little to complain about, in terms of oppression, and the actions they call for constitute religious oppression. Rewriting college policy or circumventing voting policies to advocate for a religious group is a call for policies which do circumvent the First Amendment, however, via the interpretation of the First Amendment as preventing governing bodies (local governments, state governments and state institutions) from ruling on religion.

Fact checking itself is a great reason not to print those letters; part of my job extends to fact-checking (checking names, sports scores, local events, website addresses and the text of quotes.) The letters from religious writers are rife with unsubstantiated claims, name misspellings and a general relationship to accuracy which can only be described as avoidant. We generally print them with the policy that there comes a point at which the responsibility for accuracy becomes the writer's, but sadly not always with a disclaimer, leading some readers to think that we share their opinions. We also publish anti-vaccination rants and local rants from people who call college students in the sciences evil-doers. The anti-vaccination rants are, in themselves, actually dangerous to the health of the college population, and the rants about gay people are, in my opinion, also damaging to the health of students and represent a violation of equal access to college facilities, an often-unenforced part of college policies at this institution. Because prejudices against gay people still result in their deaths and all the classic signs of prejudice (the local religious and conservative communities are quite vocal on the forums and in terms of letter writing), like threats to gay student union funding and the regular claims that gay organizations/vaccinations make people gay/sluts, I count these things as relatively akin, in terms of damage.

My boss has mentioned community pressure and being tired of being complained at by Christians and conservatives, who are vocal and apparently have more spare time than I do or he does. That constant, unrelenting pressure in the form of accusations and threats is also a problem, in terms of the First Amendment. It assumes Christianity as the necessary state of everything, and tries to force a single religion and point of view on everyone else, using the Constitution as a springboard. And it's bullshit.

Believing that the First Amendment allows speech which is damaging, insulting and dangerous without critique, as long as it represents the state religion or the is absolutely a misunderstanding of the Constitution, and one which negates the text and intent of the First Amendment in the process; I understand my boss' reluctance to take a stand, because I think that Christians have been given authority by local consensus, or the appearance of consensus because of the pressure involved, in addition to the pressure of being the state religion, to bully people who disagree.

It doesn't stop me from being angry as I read letters and articles which allow Christians to bully, miss the point by miles, pass misunderstandings and threats, call names and otherwise crap all over my newspaper for the sake of a facile understanding of free speech, translated to mean that no one can critique Christians.

It is not, as it is so often called, 'fair.'

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