Free Press Applies To Ideas That Are Not Pre-Approved

By Director Dr. William Stimson, EWU Journalism Department

Many people were upset by an article that appeared in The Easterner on Oct. 15 under the title, “Protests in Missouri Unfair to Local Businesses.” One letter writer said he was “appalled” that such an article “was allowed a platform in your campus newspaper.”

But look at the actual results. Precisely because the article in question was provocative, people across this campus have had an animated discussion over the fate of an unarmed black man who was shot to death by a white policeman in Missouri. The event was an unscheduled topic of discussion in many classrooms because of the article.

The controversial article brought responses from both the NAACP and the EWU Africana Studies Program. Dr. Scott Finnie of the Africana Studies Program was able to add this fact to the record: “About two African-Americans are shot by police weekly, and black males between 15 and 19 years of age are 21 times more likely to be shot by a white police officer than white males of the same age.”

Suppose the student writer had been worried enough about a reaction that he did not write the article. Worse, suppose he had been the type to intuit what he was expected to say and simply parroted that. He would still hold the same view and perhaps have been bitter at the thought he was not free to say what he really believed. Anyone else who took his point of view would remain safely unchallenged by the counter arguments and that came flooding forth in the wake of the article. And there would have been no campus-wide discussion of the matter. Would that have been a better outcome?

The role of free opinion is to serve up an idea so the rest of the community can discuss it. Error is assumed in the process; no one has a perfect fix on the workings of the universe or any part of it. Opinion is for the purposes of discussion. That is the only way to deal successfully with provocative ideas. You cannot abolish wrong thinking by preventing it from being spoken.

The only mistake editors of the Easterner made, in my opinion, was in not making it even clearer that that the controversial opinion was in no way an expression of the whole editorial team. The page does carry the title “Opinion” and the article was signed. But given the fact that the writer was on the staff, editors probably should have emphasized this was merely another expression of personal opinion.

Otherwise, the paper did its job. Its job is not to guess what everyone wants to hear and to deliver that. The job of the newspaper is to provide news that is accurate and opinion that is genuine. An opinion is not a matter of accuracy. It is more like a hypothesis: a supposition to be stated for the purpose of moving discussion forward. I think Easterner editors did that.

From that point, it is up to others. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis pointed out almost a century ago, censorship is the biggest threat to the American political system because it disables the process. “Without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile,” and that discussion is indispensible because “the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”

Dr. Stimson is director of the EWU Journalism Program