For the past few months, I’ve been laying out The Conway Daily Sun’s Opinion section. This has been a disheartening experience as I’ve had to place columns and letters on the page that are often racist, sexist or homophobic.
I’ve long known and been uncomfortable with the fact that this sort of content is published in the Sun’s Opinion section but actually having to place on the page blatantly bigoted language hit me hard.
It felt as if I were somehow complicit in distributing a message that I morally object to.
But if we were to censor this content, would we be violating the First Amendment and the writers’ right to free speech?
The First Amendment states: “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.”
The First Amendment prevents the government from censoring individuals or the press. This includes all language, even language we detest. This doesn’t mean a person or publication can’t exercise discretion.
Generally speaking, I choose not to curse in public. This is a personal choice based on social mores, respect and common courtesy. Now, if Congress passed a law banning public cursing, that would be a breach of the First Amendment.
Similarly, if a law were passed stating that no publication could run racist columns — as deplorable as they may be — that also would be a breach of the First Amendment.
This doesn’t mean a publication can’t exercise restraint and choose not to run racist material.
Words have power and meaning. While we have the right to say anything and everything, it doesn’t mean we should. It is important to consider the weight of our words and how they will affect others.
The Sun doesn’t publish overt hate speech, but hate speech isn’t just the use of pejoratives. A more passive form of racism, sexism or homophobia can be far more insidious and arguably more dangerous because it is institutionalized. The denial of systemic racism falls into this category.
In May, Sun OpEd columnist Tom McLaughlin wrote in a column: “The reader may notice that I’m not calling them ‘trans-females’ because I don’t accept that there’s any such thing.”
This statement is transphobic, and while we had every right to publish it, it is important to weigh the impact of those words. It is that sort of language and the denial of one's existence that could make a trans teen suicidal.
So how does publishing racist, sexist or homophobic opinions benefit the community?
One can argue it is important to be aware that people think this way in the valley. You can also argue that there are readers in the community who share those views, and that by not publishing those perspectives, a large segment of the readership is ignored.
But is it worth marginalizing whole groups of people to pander to misinformed people with close-minded, antiquated views?
Yes, there are people in this community who think the same way as someone like McLaughlin, but instead of reinforcing that belief, In feel we should be working to inform the public and to shape the debate.
The other argument for publishing this sort of incendiary material is that its removal represents a biased, one-sided perspective. I certainly don’t want to silence contrasting points of view, but they add no value to the discussion if they are racist, sexist or homophobic.
Freedom of the press doesn’t mean having to publish everything. A newspaper choosing not to act as a platform for bigotry, ignorance and misinformation is not a breach of the First Amendment. As Sacha Baron Cohen said last November, “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.”
Tom McLaughlin did not submit a column this week. Alec Kerr is the arts and community editor at The Conway Daily Sun.