There is a first amendment controversy that has erupted at Wesleyan University over a column written by Bryan Stascavage, a 30-year-old student who served two tours in Iraq, penned an op-ed in the school newspaper that criticized the Black Lives Matter movement. Stascavage is a sophomore majoring in philosophy and political science at Wesleyan and staff writer for the Argus. He wrote a piece criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement — a position shared by many who view some in the movement as espousing anti-police sentiments and, as discussed on this blog, often denouncing people for declaring that “all lives matter” as racists. However, Stascavage and the editors of the college newspaper were met by a torrent of criticism and calls for funding for the newspaper to be withdrawn. To its credit, the University stood strongly with free speech. However, the editors then issued an abject apology that clearly portrayed the decision to publish Stascavage’s column as a mistake.
The controversy began with that op-ed, “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think,” published Sept. 14 in the Wesleyan Argus. Stascavage wrote:
“It boils down to this for me: If vilification and denigration of the police force continues to be a significant portion of Black Lives Matter’s message, then I will not support the movement, I cannot support the movement. And many Americans feel the same . . . Is it worth another riot that destroys a downtown district? Another death, another massacre? At what point will Black Lives Matter go back to the drawing table and rethink how they are approaching the problem?”
Stascavage criticized those who taunted police and leaders who did not condemn such chants. He was also self-critical of himself and conservatives:
I realize that moderate conservatives need to speak up more as well. If we had, gay marriage might have been legalized years ago. Instead, I got the feeling that a lot of moderate conservatives were afraid of speaking up about the issue and being labeled as a RINO (Republican In Name Only). . . .
Kim Davis, the misguided clerk who is refusing to hand out marriage licenses, is a perfect example of this. As a conservative, it is infuriating to see one clerk in one city out of the thousands in conservative states making headlines, when the rest are handing out licenses with no issue. One clerk is making headlines and is being held up as evidence that conservatives hate homosexuality. Kim Davis generated a couple hundred supporters, a very small showing.
The result was a firestorm of condemnation and a petition that demanded the defunding of the newspaper — signed by 172 students and staff. The petition included demands that, if the newspaper is allowed to continue to be funding, the school would guarantee that all newspaper editors and writers take a mandatory “once a semester Social Justice/Diversity training” and “open spaces dedicated for marginalized groups/voices if no submissions: BLANK that states: ‘for your voice’ on the front page.”
In the meantime, the WSA member Sadasia McCutchen reportedly joined others in the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) meeting to denounce the newspaper and the university president who defended free speech during the controversy. McCuthen is described as stating “We said that Black Lives Matter is not something that can be negotiated. It’s not a maybe, it’s a fact. . . . We also noted Pres. Roth’s blog posts which is quite disgusting.”
The “disgusting” blog was actually an highly articulate and balanced statement by President Michael Roth entitled “Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech”. Here is part of that truly insightful blog:
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.
One would have thought that such a blog would give the editors of the Argus the high ground and reinforce the decision to give a conservative voice a forum on campus. Instead, editors-in-chief Rebecca Brill and Tess Morgan wrote an apology and suggested that the column should not have been printed in this fashion. Brill and Morgan should have defended the right of the writer to express his views and steadfastly kept their views (which are irrelevant) out of the column. Instead they affirm: “The opinions expressed in the op-ed do not reflect those of The Argus, and we want to affirm that as community members, we stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.”
They then kick Stascavage to the curb and declare that he misrepresented facts without specifying what those “facts” might be:
That being said, we acknowledge that the way in which the op-ed was published gave the writer’s words validity. First and foremost, we apologize for our carelessness in fact-checking. The op-ed cites inaccurate statistics and twists facts. As Wesleyan’s student newspaper, it is our responsibility to provide our readership with accurate information. We vow to raise our standards of journalism and to fact-check questionable information cited in articles, including those in the Opinion section, prior to publication.
Additionally, the piece was published without a counter-argument in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement alongside it, and this lack of balance gave too much weight to the views expressed in the op-ed. We should have addressed the unevenness of the Opinion section in Tuesday’s issue prior to publication. In the future, we will carefully consider the context in which articles are published and work to represent a wider variety of views, even if this entails holding off on publishing a particular op-ed until we have appropriate material to run with it.
The statement raises the question if every piece published from the other side will also be accompanied by a counter conservative view. Most opinion pieces create an “uneven” view. Does every column now have to have a counterpart or just columns that conflict with popular views?
In fairness to these students, it is not easy to find oneself at the epicenter of such a national controversy. They clearly are sensitive to the feelings of many in the community that their lives are devalued and feel responsible for their newspaper magnifying those feelings. However, this is not an uncommon position for editors and the coin of the journalistic realm is found in the neutrality of the newspaper.
Moroever, if Brill and Morgan are going to accuse one of their writers of twisting facts, they should explain what those facts are. The column appears to rest squarely on Stascavage’s interpretation of events and statements. That is what an opinion column does. If he has misrepresenting something, an editor needs to be clear about what was misrepresented rather than conclusory denouncing their own writer.
Rebecca Brill and Tess Morgan reads like a fawning attempt to appease a clearly anti-free speech effort by critics. The answer should have been clear. They gave space to an unpopular viewpoint but that is very function of a newspaper: to generate discourse and debate. That same space is available to opposing views. Instead, there is an effort to blame their class schedules and volunteer staff for allowing these unpopular views to be published without some undefined editorial curtailment or limitations. Instead of being proud that their paper airs sharply opposing views and does not shy from controversy, Brill and Morgan seemed to abandon both their neutrality and their responsibility in the face of an attack on their newspaper.
Universities are supposed to be free speech zones where ideas and values are expressed without fear of retaliation or censorship. What Sadasia McCutchen and others reportedly found “disgusting” is the very guarantee of academic discourse, as explained so well by President Roth. What concerns me is that these critics immediately sought to defund a newspaper for publishing views that they do not like. It is further evidence of the erosion of free speech values on our campuses and a raising intolerance for opposing views.