Did the Chronicle Cross the Line? The Limits of Free Speech

Editor’s Note: Please know that comments are disabled on this post. However, if you have a meaningful response please email us at chronicle@wcsu32.org. 

The original version of this opinion piece was published on November 1st and was followed by much controversy. The Chronicle’s editors took the piece down that same night. Since then, the Chronicle has been working with the author to revise the piece for republication. Among other things, one paragraph was changed from the original version. The original is shown below:

“The vast majority of books written in English have been written by whites. The logical outcome is that there are more books of higher quality written by white English speakers than non-white English speakers. There are books of high quality written by non-white authors, but the simple fact is that when the pool of content is overwhelmingly white, the top end of the spectrum of literary quality will also be overwhelmingly white.”

Again, opinion pieces do not reflect the views or beliefs of the U-32 Chronicle.

We tried to represent several perspectives in our editorial comments in this post but recognize that these remain incomplete. We would like to acknowledge and respect that some members of BLAMM (Black LatinX Asian and Many More) are boycotting the Chronicle at this time. They have declined to offer their perspective in this setting.

To be clear, our purpose for republishing the article is because it prompted a lot of discussions and many people had not read the original version. We did not want rumors or second-hand information to circulate. We recognize in publishing this piece that we are compounding the harm done to those who felt injured by the original publication, but we are trying to maintain transparency and openness in our community.

[showhide type=”1″ more_text=”Click here to read a letter from the Chronicle Team’s teacher advisor.” less_text=”Hide Ben’s Letter”]

To the U-32 community and Chronicle readers:

Publication carries responsibility. Last week, in choosing to publish a student’s opinion piece that was read by many as hurtful and racist, I failed in my responsibility in at least two ways.

First, though the writer worked with me through several conferences and drafts, there were sentences that remained unclear. When a piece of writing enters into sensitive territory– especially addressing issues surrounding race– it must be perfectly clear. It may be that even a clear version of the piece should not have been published, but it was irresponsible to publish with portions of the argument left open to interpretation.

The second failure is more important. In the past we have had very few opinion pieces in the Chronicle, but this year we have two opinion writers on staff and a growing interest among other students to publish their views. The problem is that we have added opinion pieces to our mix of stories without any policy in place, with no guidelines to define the boundaries or standards for publication.

The Chronicle‘s editors are working to draft this policy, but I should have made sure we had done so before we published any opinion pieces. Some people who read the piece felt that it reflected the views of the Chronicle or the school. This is not the case, and the piece was labeled to say so. Still, we leave ourselves open to charges of bias when we don’t have a clear policy in place.

I remain very proud of the Chronicle‘s work, building an open platform for student voice. We live in a divided society, and the same divisions exist at U-32. I believe it’s possible, on this small scale, to keep everyone at one table, in one discussion, even when some views may be extreme or unpopular.  

When a student publishes their views in their school community– in contrast to writing into the wider internet– they are directly accountable for their words. They hear from their audience, face to face. The audience engages more directly, too, knowing the opinion came from someone walking the same halls. I believe a healthy civic culture depends on this openness and direct accountability.

Last Friday there were many discussions among U-32’s students about this piece of writing, both in and out of class. These discussions were uncomfortable, but they needed to happen. I had powerful conversations with my journalism students, colleagues in the English and Social Studies departments, members of BLAMM, the Chronicle‘s editors, the writer of the piece, and administrators. Every one of these conversations was respectful and raised challenging questions.

I came away humbled, with a renewed sense of responsibility. I also own that my own privilege, as a white male, certainly played a role in the way I handled the situation.

Racism is a serious problem in our community, and I regret any harm done by my decision to publish this piece. I realize the harm will be compounded in some respects by republishing it today.

I also feel it is important for people to know what was actually written, rather than carry away a narrative based on hearsay. I advocated for the piece to be republished alongside editorial comments, hoping it would cause less harm in this form. I understand that for some in our community this is an unacceptable action.

I remain a strong believer in free speech. I think student writers should have the right to express their opinions, even when they may offend. I personally disagree with some of the labels that have been used to describe the piece of writing in question, particularly the term “hate speech.” I am not interested in deciding who is allowed to write, or telling them which opinions they should share.  But I also understand that our goal is to build a better civic culture, not to contribute to the polarized, unhealthy dialogue we see around us today, and certainly not to do harm to anyone in our community.

These are hard values to balance, and we need a more careful process, with clear criteria for determining when a piece is fit for publication. This remains a work in progress.

I hope this experience can be a powerful lesson for our school community. It certainly has been for me.

Sincerely,

Ben Heintz

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[showhide type=”2″ more_text=”Click here to read the controversial article.” less_text=”Hide Martin’s Article”]

U-32’s English Curriculum Discriminates Against White Authors

By Martin McMahon

One month ago, a letter was published in the U-32 Chronicle criticizing our English department for a lack of racial and gender diversity in its classes’ curriculums. In that piece, the author (Sylvie Williams), makes a “…request for diversity in the literature presented to us throughout high school.” The reality is that racial diversity in books used by our English classes are diverse to the point of overrepresentation.

Last year (2017-’18), of all the books read in Comp. & Lit., Humanities, and American Writers (three of the central English classes at U-32), 35.3% (1) were written by non-white authors. According to a study done by Lee & Low Books, over the past 20 years only roughly 10% of all published books have been written by non-white authors. This calculates to an overrepresentation of over 250%.

The vast majority of books written in English are by whites (this doesn’t imply that non-whites are less capable of creating quality writing). Because the pool of books written by white authors is so much greater (9 times greater), more of the books at the peak of literary quality are written by white authors.

The diversity that matters is not in the race of the author or the characters, but in the literary techniques used by the author–the use of rhetorical devices, character development, effective figurative and descriptive language. An author’s writing does not change in technique or design simply because of their race or gender. Good writing is objective, and books should be used to teach students both what good writing looks like as well as how to create it themselves.

If you think it is important for students to learn about the history of non-white Americans, good, there’s a class for that. It’s called U.S. History. English class is not supposed to be a political class, nor should it be. It is designed to create good readers, and good writers. Making race a more important determinant of literary value than the actual content of the books does a disservice to all U-32 students.

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[showhide type=”3″ more_text=”Click here to read the perspective of the Chronicle Team’s senior editor.” less_text=”Hide Lucy’s Letter”]

Confessions from the Editor- How White Privilege Influenced the Publication of a Harmful Article

By Lucy Wood

Who am I to decide what gets published about race and racism in the school newspaper that I manage? As a white, middle-class person in a mostly white school, why is it that I get to decide what does and does not harm people of color? In what ways does my privilege influence the choices that I make?

On November first, the U-32 Chronicle briefly published an opinion piece in which a student shared his viewpoint that our English curriculum was “discriminatory against whites.” As the senior editor, I was faced with the choice of whether or not to publish it. However, from my point of privilege, I saw not publishing his article as a free speech issue. The student had the right to voice his opinion, so who was I to take that away from him? I later realized how profoundly my privilege impacted my decision to publish the piece. My go-to thought about whether or not to publish his article was about making sure I did not tread on his first amendment right to freedom of speech, not about protecting people of color in my community from the harm that this article would surely cause them.

The article was only up for an hour before comments from angry and scared students and parents flooded the Chronicle’s Facebook page. One of the more meaningful comments came from Meg Allison. It was a long, eloquent statement about how this article was harming students of color in the school community. After seeking the approval of our faculty advisor, the editing team removed the article from the website.

The next day at school, students of color came up to me and shared how they’d felt harmed by his article. Finally, a reason to take the piece down! According to the ACLU’s free speech site, students have a right to free speech up until said speech “creates a pervasively hostile environment for vulnerable students.” Since his article was harming people of color (who are in the extreme minority of 7% at my school), his right to free speech could therefore be revoked. Yet viewing this as a free speech issue shows my privilege at work. I was looking to the first amendment to guide me, rather than focusing on proactively protecting my peers of color from harm.

Kelly Wickham Hurst, in her article 10 Things Schools Can Do Today for Black Students, writes that “systems need to respond first and not put the onus on violated students to force it.” The students of color at my school shouldn’t have had to come forward explaining the harm the article personally caused them; the editors should’ve realized before the publication of the piece that it was harmful. My own white privilege shielded me from analyzing the potential impact of the piece before publishing it. Aside from creating a hostile environment, the author of the article was essentially diminishing the relevance of people of color, yet I was so caught up in protecting his right to freedom of speech that I briefly became complicit in this act.

As an editor, I need to address freedom of speech. As a human being, what’s even more important is checking my own white privilege and examining articles for the subtle ways in which they thinly veil their implicit bias under the grounds of free speech.

I’ve always considered myself an ally for people of color in my community, but I now realize that in order to be this ally, I must be more aware of how my white privilege impacts the choices that I make. I must look within myself to check my privilege when publishing articles and when existing in the world.

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