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Thinking free: the government as opinion watchdog

Should the government restrict insensitive commentary?

I’m a subscriber to Philadelphia Magazine, and was intrigued by the magazine’s recent cover article entitled ‘Being White In Philly.’ It began with what seemed like bravely honest talk about the uncomfortable race relations in the city. As someone who values open dialogue, at first I was pleased to see the author cut through the typical polite, politically correct language. He frankly discussed issues rarely mentioned in mainstream publications, such as whites’ distaste for discussing poverty in black communities, and blacks’ over-sensitivity and suspiciousness when dealing with white people. I agreed with his premises that treading softly on the subject of prejudice will never lead to resolution, and that one can encounter racism against whites in the black community just as one can find racism against blacks in the white community.

But by mid-article, I found the interesting points negated by the offensive opinions of those who were interviewed. I was put off by the author’s negative generalities on race and his wistful reminiscing about how certain Philly communities were much safer when a smaller percentage of blacks lived there.

Not long after I had cast the article aside, I was interested to find it in the news again. Philadelphia’s black mayor Michael Nutter sent a letter to the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission, seeking punishment of the magazine for publishing the article.

“The First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right,” wrote Mayor Nutter. “A publisher has a duty to the public to exercise its role in a responsible way. I ask the Commission to evaluate whether the ‘speech’ employed in this essay is not the reckless equivalent of ‘shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater,’ its prejudiced, fact-challenged generalizations an incitement to extreme reaction.”

Rue Landau, the Human Relations Commission’s executive director, agreed with the mayor’s concerns and launched an inquiry on the magazine, investigating its “racial insensitivity and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes.”

Says the magazine’s editor Tom McGrath, “I find it chilling that [Nutter] wants to use the government to censor a news outlet…As a journalist – as someone who thinks free speech is really important – I find that really, really troubling.”

“Any time you write about race you have to be prepared that it’s going to be controversial,” he continued. “In some places to simply talk about race is to be accused of being a racist and some of the reaction has sort of borne that out.”

As discussed in my last post, American freedom means respecting the rights of those with whom we disagree, allowing them to  voice their diverse or even repugnant opinions, and live the way they choose even when their actions conflict with our beliefs. We cannot slander others with false or purposely malicious intent, but we are all entitled to our opinions.

Mayor Nutter, like every other Philadelphia resident, is free to voice his critical opinion about the article. He may publicly denounce the magazine for choosing to publish it. Philadelphians are free to show their displeasure in multiple ways, such as writing letters to the magazine and to local newspapers, picketing in front of the magazine’s offices and canceling their subscriptions.

Tolerance will never come by silencing dialogue. But that’s beside the point. Mayor Nutter equates expressing controversial views to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. He feels speech must be monitored in order to protect the community.

Do government agencies need to oversee the media to makesure no one is caused offense? Should we allow officials to suppress voices because we fear the backlash of those who may be offended?

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