We recently discussed the apology of the New York Times for publishing a column from a leading United States Senator on the possible use of troops to quell rioting after the death of George Floyd. That decision, and the sacking of the opinion page editor, represented one of the lowest moments in American journalism. It made echo journalism the official policy of one of the oldest news organizations in the United States. The lesson was not, it appears, lost on young college journalists at Syracuse University who sacked a columnist because she questioned claims of “institutional racism.” Adrianna San Marco notably did not write her opinion in The Daily Orange but she was canned for challenging this widely held view. My greatest concern is the lack of specificity from the editors on the objections to her column beyond “reinforcing stereotypes.” Such actions demand a clarity in the standard being applied to writers.
As will come as no surprise to most on this blog, my interest in the controversy at Syracuse is not the merits of the underlying column or its research but the implications for free speech and the free press. In her piece published by LifeZette, she argued that institutional racism is a “myth” and that claimed statistics indicate that police do not target African-Americans. She discussed the findings of a study by the National Academy of Sciences that in late 2019 found “no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities” across police shootings.
There are ample arguments against such claims, including some referenced by San Marco in her column. It is the type of argument that once defined the intellectual discourse of higher education. Indeed, such topics were often raised precisely because they generated passionate and probing analysis.
This is not those times. Now, the New York Times apologizes for publishing opposing views and young journalists fire colleagues because they hold opposing views. Daily Orange editor-in-chief Casey Darnell seemed to rip a page out of the “new” New York Times:
“Dismissing the existence of racism, whether institutional or otherwise, dismisses the lived experiences of people of color, especially our black community members. San Marco’s article reinforces false and dangerous stereotypes of Black people as criminals, and dismisses that police officers kill black people at disproportionately higher rates than white people.”
Darnell insisted “[w]e aren’t afraid of controversial views, but we have a responsibility to avoid promoting harmful ones. We don’t censor conservative columnists. In fact, we have already hired a conservative columnist to replace San Marco.”
While I applaud the editors for their sensitivity to these issues, I respectfully believe that Darnell misses the point. The concern is the San Marco was sacked because she held an opposing view on “institutional racism.” The challenge is not to select a “conservative” but support writers in holding opposing views, including those expressed in other publications. The decision appears to be based entirely on this one column and San Marco contesting the widely held view of systemic and institutionalized racism. Rather than sack the writer, the question is whether a newspaper can still publish opposing and even upsetting columns as part of its contribution to the national debate. Otherwise, we are enforcing orthodox views or stipulating that only a narrow range of opinions will be tolerated.
I thought that the statement of the editors constitute an excellent and powerful rebuttal. They could go further in specifically addressing San Marco’s statistical arguments. That would make for an important and substantive exchange.
Again, I return to my admittedly fading “old school” view of free speech that, rather than silencing a columnist, a newspaper can be a forum for a variety of views, including those at the extremes of the debate. In the past, I have defended academics accused of anti-white or intolerant views from the left. I would rather have such views freely expressed than engage in selective censorship to silence those with whom we disagree.
Student journalists must decide how to meet the challenge of free speech and free press in an age of rage. They can either yield to calls for censorship (like the New York Times) or they can stand on the defining principle that the solution for anything deemed bad speech is more and better speech. Once again, they would be wise to heed the words of Louis Brandeis in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California (1927) when he declared “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”