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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Free Speech and Editorial Conscience

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From time to time, article submissions pop into my inbox that trouble me, sometimes very deeply. Reading them, I wonder how to uphold the principle of free speech without tacitly endorsing viewpoints I oppose or even despise. I try to tell myself that the words of Author X won’t reflect badly on me and that any attentive reader will realize that the opinions of the Viewpoint contributors don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors. My concerns aren’t only for my personal reputation or the reputation of the paper: I wonder what the aftershocks of such an article would be in the hearts and minds of the students, faculty, staff, and alumni who would read it. For all of those reasons, I imagine irate picketers outside the Carletonian office on printing day, raising hand-painted signs that would eerily reflect my conscience, reading, “You could have said no!”

And it’s the truth: in theory, at least, I can say no. I want to help the Carletonian continue to be a place for the free exercise of ideas, but at the same time, I do believe that we have a certain right of refusal for articles, especially if we have moral qualms about them. I might feel differently if I lived a few centuries in the past in some small town with only one newspaper and one print- ing press and one conduit for the publication of ideas. In that situation, my censorship really might be final and the idea could be smothered and killed. But in this day and age, that is far from the case: anyone can freely take their beef to the blogosphere.

This right of refusal seems especially valid in cases when the Carletonian editors believe that the article could cause significant harm to the Carleton community. What constitutes “harm” is, of course, subjective, but I believe that my fellow editors and I have good noses for that–and more importantly, thoughtful hearts. Before I get into a longer description of the right of refusal on the basis of harm, know that any article I refused on such a basis would be on my conscience forever, and I would wonder whether my actions displayed a hypocrital dissonance from my stated commit- ment to free speech. No matter how much I disagreed with the article, I also wouldn’t want to make my fellow student writers feel as if I have tried–and succeeded–in making them voiceless. Besides, censoring certain kinds of controversial ideas could maintain dangerous illusions. Imagine that the campus—and the surrounding world—is engaged in a heated debate about widgets. Let’s say that the majority of campus is in support of widgets, and that I am convinced that the continued endorsement of widgets is crucial to the survival of justice, freedom, and the democratic state. (Or whatever.) If somebody writes a passionate anti-widget manifesto, and I censor it for whatever reason, then I’m creating the illusion that all Carls are en- lightened widget supporters and that there are no nasty bastions of fervent anti-widgetism in our midst. Even imagining that I’m dead wrong and that widgets are not, in fact, crucial to the survival of justice, freedom, and the democratic state, I’d still be creating a false illusion of consensus, which is the opposite of what an opinion page should accomplish. Indeed, there are moral risks to censorship.

On the other hand, though, there are also moral risks to publication. Imagine that someone has asked me to print their cartoon of the prophet Muhammed. (Fortunately, this has never happened to me!) I wouldn’t do it: allowing such an image into the paper would alienate minority community members at Carleton and create a hurtful campus climate. Admittedly, most Viewpoint submissions–even the controversial ones–are tamer than that, so my example may seem extreme at first. However, if you know where to look, you will find that extreme opinions were and are found on our campus. For example, when I was looking through the Carletonian archives for old cartoons on censorship, I found a 1992 letter to the editor from a Jewish student who came back to his dorm to find that someone had carved a swastika into his door. What if the vandal had taken up his hatred with a pen instead of a knife and submitted his wicked prose to the Carletonian? I certainly hope that the editors would not have printed it in the name of free speech.

To conclude, I’ll just reiterate what I hope is obvious: it can be tough, even brutal, to be on the other side of the editorial desk, especially when it comes to issues of censorship. Back- lash will come either way—whether the paper gets painted as the un- thinking conduit for hatred or the cowardly and self-righteous censor, the portrait is an ugly one. Some- times newspapers—the Carletonian included—may need your patience and your forgiveness just as much as they need your criticism. And they will probably deserve your forgiveness if they have arrived at their conclusion to censor or not to censor by considering issues of ethics. My hope is that newspaper editors will feel free to follow their consciences as to what kinds of ideas they can and cannot ethically be a conduit for. Especially in the age of the internet, I believe that editors have a moral right to a free conscience as much as their contributors have a moral right to free speech.

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