Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Marquette Tribune: No Free Speech For Conservatives

It used to be that one could expect journalists to favor free speech. After all, who has a more intense interest in free speech than people whose occupation is expressing themselves in writing?

Indeed, at one time journalists, in spite of their liberal political beliefs, would side with free expression even for conservatives. After all, wasn’t it all part of a single package -- free speech for liberals and free speech for conservatives?

Those days are past, and nothing shows it better than the fledgling journalists at the Marquette Tribune. On a variety of free speech issues that have arisen on campus over the last two years they have shown a consistent pattern: they have favored free speech for liberals, and supported the University when it shut up conservatives.

Let’s start with the editorial in yesterday’s paper on “The Vagina Monologues,” a feminist play that is supposedly about violence and sexual exploitation of women, but in fact promotes a broader agenda of sexual promiscuity and lesbianism. The rather vapid response of the Tribune is:
Unfortunately, sexuality evolved into a phenomenon often fraught with confusion, hurt and even oppression. As Catholics, we reject oppression and stand in solidarity against the reality of sexual violence as we are called by God to treasure and respect His gifts to us.

Understanding exactly how we as Catholics should tackle this tremendous undertaking presents a challenge - one we feel can benefit from academic exploration. The university’s recent approval of a reading of “The Vagina Monologues” offers an extremely pertinent discussion framed within the context of faith and education.
In the context of free and open discussion on a college campus, a performance (or reading) of “The Vagina Monologues” is certainly defensible.

The Tribune treats the issue of who will lead the discussion on the play, and does call for the inclusion of someone who can “represent Catholic teaching” and would “ensure adequate attention be paid to the reading’s relationship to our Catholic community.” A good idea, but mere tokenism, given the leftist slant of the panel already announced.

But is the context “free and open discussion on a college campus?” At the Tribune, it’s not.

The paper has consistently supported the University when it has stifled conservative student expression. As they admit:
Students for Academic Freedom was denied recognition as a student organization by the Office of Student Development yesterday after being drawn out for months. . . . In the end . . . we agree with the decision to deny recognition to the group. Certainly, concerns over free speech at Marquette are valid. Although students technically have no First Amendment rights here, it remains a bad idea for the university to step in and restrict speech.

Three cases from the last three years all drew public fire: Adopt-a-Sniper, the dental school blogger and the quote removed from the office door of philosophy graduate students. The university handled each case poorly; each time criticism was richly deserved.

However, we agree with the university’s end decisions in each situation and we have faith the university will continue to pursue and support academic freedom. We’re not convinced that Students for Academic Freedom would have achieved anything additional.
It’s not clear what they mean concerning the Dental School blogger. Did they favor the initial draconian punishment, or the lighter punishment that was eventually levied?

But the case of the Dental School blogger was entirely nonideological. In the three cases where campus conservatives were shut up, the Adopt-a-Sniper Republican fund raiser, the Dave Barry quote a Philosophy graduate student posted on his door, and Students for Academic Freedom, the Tribune sided with the University in shutting up student expression.

Editor Ryan Nilsson, reached for an interview yesterday, insists that any claim of a liberal bias on the Tribune editorial board is a “vast oversimplification,” and says that he is “a conservative Catholic.” He further named two other members of the board, saying that one is a Republican and the other claims to be “Catholic as hell.”

Editorial Board member Tim Horneman responded to our query on this issue with the following e-mail:
I think it would be hard to argue from reading all of our editorials this school year, that there is a strong bias one way or the other. We have at times agreed with the administration, as we did in today’s editorials; we have at other times sharply disagreed with the administration, as we did with the South Africa decision. We have sometimes supported MUSG ideas; we have sometimes opposed them. Our opinions have probably, at times, put us at odds with a large part of the student body. Other times, the students would agree with us entirely.

Our decisions in the Tuesday Tribune, as I wrote on the Tribune editors’ blog late Monday night, came after lengthy, at times contentious, discussion. To suggest we didn’t consider all sides - or that a bias one way or the other led us to simply discount some perspective - is a result that, I believe, would not be reached by a careful reading of the editorials.

We gave particular voice to Catholic concerns when we approved of a reading of “The Vagina Monologues,” with our recommendation that a theologian representing Catholic teaching be present at the forum. We acknowledged the concerns Students for Academic Freedom had over free speech, although we disagreed that a group was necessary or productive for the cause.

Simply attributing our decisions to liberal bias or conservative bias or pro- or anti-administration bias, I believe, shortchanges the consideration we put into these editorials. We have no problem if people disagree with us - in fact, we welcome them to send us Viewpoints and continue the discussion of these issues - but to simply dismiss our opinions as one-sided doesn’t do justice to the editorials we wrote or the deliberation we put into them throughout Monday.
Unfortunately, all the talk about “deliberation” and “contentious discussion” doesn’t change the fact that the Tribune has consistently come down against free speech for conservatives.

One can, of course, engage in “deliberation” and “contentious discussion” and come down in favor of free speech. We don’t doubt that the Tribune editorial board thinks that it is engaging in fair deliberation without ideological bias. We just doubt that it actually is.

A particularly egregious editorial in the Tribune supported the University on the issue of the censorship of a quote from Dave Barry posted on the door of a Philosophy Department graduate student. Philosophy Department chair James South tore down the cartoon, explaining that he had had “complaints” and that the quote was “patently offensive.” Even the liberal Journal-Sentinel took the University to task.

We discussed the Philosophy Department issue with Nilsson yesterday, and he derided concern about free speech by saying “it’s a bumper sticker” and “a lot of these things are being blown out of proportion” by bloggers and talk radio.

So that seems to be the philosophy at the Tribune. Free speech isn’t a serious matter. And least, not when conservatives want to do it.

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