Sunday, February 11, 2007

The First Amendment and Stupidity

I meant to blog abou the CCSU rape article controversy this weekend, but I didn't get around to it as I was taking a mock bar exam. I figure I'll still offer a few comments.

For those of you who may have missed it, here's the story in brief. Last week, the CCSU student newspaper published an opinion piece by opinion page editor John Petroski entitled "Rape Only Hurts If You Fight It." Not surprisingly, the piece resulted in campus wide protest and condemnation. According to Petroski, the piece was intended as a piece of a satire and was not meant to hurt anyone. The whole affair culminated with his firing from the paper and his public apology yesterday.

My point of view is that he deserved to fired- not for what he wrote, but for his editorial stupidity. Often times, these sorts of college newspaper controversies stir up a first amendment debate, that quite honestly, is besides the point. There is a difference between an individual's right to express their opinions and the editorial choices a newspaper must make- in other words, papers are free to publish, but they are not immune from the consequences of what they publish. And by consequences here I refer not to legal punishment but social responses.

The New York Times would be well within their legal rights to publish editorials denying the Holocaust and lamenting the end of slavery, but if they did, people would stop buying it and it would no longer be considered to be a reliable or useful source. This is the market at work, both in a commercial and an academic sense.

College newspapers are in a bit of a different position, because they are not as subject to market forces as commercial papers. All students are essentially forced to pay to support their school paper, so it's not beyond the pale to argue that the paper has obligations to the school community as a whole.

In either case, we're still talking about editorial judgment- raising the first amendment defense only clouds the issues because no one would argue that the school newspaper should be able to publish racist and offensive hate speech, despite the fact that they'd have a first amendment right to do so. In this CCSU case, Petroski, and the other editorial members of the paper showed absolutely no judgment in publishing something like this. They should have known that it might not come across so well. Additionally, if it's supposed to be a piece of satire, it's not even well done. I'm still unclear about the ultimate point of the satire and why rape was used to illustrate this point. After all there's a difference between being offensive and shocking to make a specific point and being offensive and shocking to be offensive and shocking.

I do worry that there are people who would punish Petroski not for his judgment but for his words. This raises the stakes and gets into a different sort of issue- it's a very different argument when you're talking about a person's right to speak their mind and say stupid things. But as I said, that's really not the issue here- speech codes are, perhaps, a topic for another day.


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