Wanted: A New Letters Policy at the Chapel Hill News

Damon Seils's picture

Sunday's edition of the Chapel Hill News includes two letters in response to Molly De Marco's recent guest column imploring the Boy Scouts of America to welcome gay people into the organization. The paper's editors decided to publish the letters, despite the authors' inflammatory statements and deeply hateful rhetoric toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. In doing so, they have sent a message to our community that the Chapel Hill News is a no-holds-barred forum for the discriminatory fantasies of bigots.

One of the letters, by Tom Evans of Pittsboro, describes LGBT people as defective and mentally dysfunctional. The other letter, by Alan Culton of Hillsborough, likens homosexuality to violent assault, marital infidelity, and pedophilia.

Almost as disturbing as the letters themselves is a subsequent blog post in which editor Mark Schultz stated, "I don't think today's letters are offensive" (subsequently modified to "I don't think today's letters constitute hate speech"). These statements make me think it's unlikely the paper's editors will consider revisiting their letters policy.

Nevertheless, even as they aim to preserve an open-letter policy, the editors of the Chapel Hill News might want to consider whether they would have printed a letter that made equally disgusting claims about other traditionally marginalized groups. No open-letter policy need be truly open; otherwise there would be no need for editors. Editors exist to make judgment calls about the contents of their publications.

If the editors of the Chapel Hill News are interested in how to explain to prospective author–bigots why their letters will not be published, they could do worse than to start with something like the following:

We do not publish letters that describe women, people of color, gay and lesbian people, etc, as defective and mentally dysfunctional or that liken those groups to criminals, adulterers, and pedophiles. We believe that public expressions of bigotry against traditionally marginalized groups lead to and serve to justify violence against those groups, and we will not provide a forum for people to publicly express their private prejudices. If you can make your argument without resorting to (or embarrassing yourself with) such statements, we will be happy to print your letter.

The private prejudices of bigots have no place in our community's public discussion, and we don't need the Chapel Hill News letters section to remind us that bigots exist.

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23 Comments

"BSA stands for Boy Scouts of America not QueerSA"

 "One of the letters, by Tom Evans of Pittsboro, describes LGBT people as defective and mentally dysfunctional. The other letter, by Alan Culton of Hillsborough, likens homosexuality to violent assault, marital infidelity, and pedophilia.Almost as disturbing as the letters themselves is a subsequent blog post in which editor Mark Schultz stated, "I don't think today's letters are offensive" (subsequently modified to "I don't think today's letters constitute hate speech")." 

It's sad that these attitudes still exist.  It's past time for DADT, in all its forms, to be gone.

George C's picture

Maybe It Has Helped

In a perverse sort of way the CHN policy may have helped to point out how far we haven't come.  It has clearly illustrated the fact that intense hatred and bigotry against gays and lesbians still exists in our community and that we have much more work to do to make every citizen feel safe and welcome in our midst.  The downside, of course, is that the editor's own response indicates that this problem will not be remedied quickly.

Anita Badrock's picture

I think it's far more

I think it's far more dangerous to not know what people are thinking.  I didn't like it when the neo-Nazis marched through Skokie, Il. either, but the ACLU supported that and I think they would also support the publication of these letters.  

George C's picture

I wasn't suggesting...

I agree with Anita that the letters should have been published.  As distasteful as they were the writers have the right to express their opinion and I think it is in our best interest to know that those opinions are out there.  I would have liked the CHN to have at least taken a position regarding the letters - you can publish something while expressing disagreement with the tone and/or content.  But that's just my personal opinion and preference.

Damon Seils's picture

Re: I think it's far more

A newspaper editor declining to print a letter is not equivalent to a government prohibiting an assembly. And, as I suggested in my post, we don't need letters in a newspaper to remind us that some of our neighbors are bigots. Serious harm results when people insert hateful speech about oppressed groups into public discourse, and the media validates such speech by providing the forum. I believe the harm is greater than the benefit we purportedly derive from an editor's decision to remind us of something we already know.

Molly De Marco's picture

I'm for free speech and all

but I don't need the CHN to print these letters to tell me that there are people out there who feel this way. We see and hear this hate speech all the time and it is wrong, which I know you believe Anita and George (I am not, of course, suggesting otherwise).The CHN has editor(s) for a reason - not everything merits being printed. These two letters add nothing to the discussion. What troubles me most is something Damon mentions - in this time, would a letter be published calling African Americans mentally dysfunctional? Women defective? I don't think so. So, why is it adding something to public discourse to publish letters saying the same of those in the LGBTIQ community?

George C's picture

So Who Makes The Decision?

Molly, Damon:I hear what both of you are saying but I ask you both:  Who makes the decision?  Who decides that a line has been crossed?   I know that on this blog it is Ruby and you, the administrators.  But in the public news media it has to be the editors.  And I do believe they have a right to make that decision as they see fit.  I also believe they have a moral obligation, as keepers of a public trust, to take a stand.  It may or may not be a stand we agree with but I believe we should know where they come down on an issue.As reprehensible as those letters were to me I don't know that I'm in a position to say: don't publish.  But I sure hope that their publication will result in some sort of public outcry that "enough is enough".  I give the editor credit for asking the public for their reaction.  The question that now concerns me:  did he even get a reaction? I'm more concerned that our community might not react to the letters than the letters themselves.

Damon Seils's picture

Re: So Who Makes the Decision?

The editors make the decision, of course. I do not question the right of the editors of the Chapel Hill News to publish the letters. I am simply engaging in the "public outcry" you describe, in the hope that they will not make such a poor decision again.

George C's picture

and if enough...

Damon, if enough folks express outrage at the views espoused in these letters then I would hope the print media editors will join in the outrage.  But I would still not support the print media editors refusing to publish such letters unless the letters encourage physical violence against others.  I know these letters came close but I don't think they met that (my) standard.You can never change someone's opinion by refusing to listen to that opinion.  I know that the submitters of these letters are most likely never going to change but I'm not willing to throw in the towel by ignoring their existence.  You said "I believe the harm is greater than the benefit we purportedly derive from an editor's decision to remind us of something we already know."  Who is the 'we'' you refer to?  Is it Chapel Hillians in general?  Is it all Chapel Hillians?  Or is it only the readers and posters of OP?  I believe there are folks who live in this community who go about their daily lives unaware that such bigotry and prejudice and yes, perhaps hatred, still exist in our community.   And asking the print media to ignore the purveyors of such bigotry and prejudice will not make it go away.  By exposing it we may be able to change it, or at least make the community aware that such bigotry and prejudice and hatred still exist.  By ignoring it we just allow it to fester so that it continues to be passed down from generation to generation.I know that change never comes fast enough.  But in my lifetime I have seen some amazing strides in attitudes toward gays & lesbians and toward minorities and interracial marriages.  I'm encouraged by those strides but I've also seen what looks to be, in some instances, steps backward.  So we can never relax our vigilance, we can never relax our efforts.  But we can also never give up a vision for a better humanity. 

Damon Seils's picture

Re: and if enough...

"But I would still not support the print media editors refusing to publish such letters unless the letters encourage physical violence against others."

If that's the standard, then editors have, like, the easiest job ever!Seriously, though, I disagree with you about whether those letters encourage violence. Promoting discrimination has consequences for the targets of that discrimination. I hope the editors of the Chapel Hill News will consider the targets of their letters section the next time they're presented with the apparently grueling decision whether to publish hate speech.And who are you calling a Chapel Hillian?

George C's picture

Anyone who...

"And who are you calling a Chapel Hillian?"In the spirit of our call for participants in the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan process, "anyone who lives, works, plays or has an interest in Chapel Hill"

lucaswj's picture

If newspapers

If newspapers didn't publish things that offended someone, they would be more boring and less useful to readers than they already are. Challenging peoples' accepted views is what newspapers are best at. That said, the big problem was not editing those letters for errors of fact. A good editor would have worked with the letter-writer to produce something publishable that also adequately represented the author's views.

What these policies look like in action

Wednesday, Aug. 24 by Laura Peters http://www.loudountimes.com/index.php/news/article/potomac_falls_woman_removed_from_sons_boy_scout_troop123/ 

 "Denise Steele has been living in Loudoun County for more than a decade, becoming involved with the community, especially through being part of her son’s Boy Scout troop for the past six years.Steele started out in Boy Scouts as a den leader for her son, Jackson, 12, for his school, Horizon Elementary. No other parent would step up to the plate to take on the responsibility of leading a Cub Scout troop.In retrospect, the situation was probably good – her son’s troop excelled at everything, including accomplishing badges and winning the Blue and Gold Award all five years, one of the highest awards for Boy Scouts.Above all, like any mother, Steele put her son first and wanted to make sure he had a great time in scouts.But in June, Steele’s chances to further bond with her son through scouting were dashed.The mother was removed from the troop after one of the other assistant scout masters discovered Steele is a lesbian."  
Damon Seils's picture

On 'Judgment Calls'

The editors of the Chapel Hill News responded to criticism of their recent publication of hate speech by reaffirming their letters policy in an editorial on Sunday:

There are some things we won't publish: letters that are libelous, that contain profanity, that regard personal disputes, and so on. ... But in general the Letters space is intended for the free exchange of ideas. Not just nice ideas. Not just inoffensive ideas, or ideas we already agree with.

The editorial implies that concerns about the letters rest on whether the letters are merely offensive or distasteful. But distasteful speech isn't the issue. We slog through distasteful content on opinion pages all the time. (Have you ever read a David Brooks column?) The letters are not merely distasteful; they're hateful. Their aim is to foster prejudice by repeating negative stereotypes that disparage a marginalized group. Distasteful speech might lead to rolling of eyes, perhaps a groan or two. Hate speech gets people killed. A crucial question the editorial neglects to address—one I raised at the beginning of this discussion and that another reader of the paper raised last Wednesday—is "whether they would have printed a letter that made equally disgusting claims about other traditionally marginalized groups." An answer to this question would tell us a lot about the intellectual honesty of Sunday's editorial defense. This evening, the Town of Carrboro commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Vickers v Chapel Hill City Board of Education, a federal court case that helped set the stage for racial integration of North Carolina schools. If the Chapel Hill News were to receive a letter about this event, one that belittled the achievements of civil rights movements and disparaged African Americans by appealing to racial stereotypes, would the editors make the letter available in their "marketplace of ideas"? Or is gay-bashing the only item on special this month? Since the editorial ends with a quotation, I'll offer another, this from playwright Tony Kushner: "When a person publicly endorses discrimination, that person becomes morally, though not legally, responsible for the mayhem visited upon the targets of discrimination. Discrimination against any group or type of people is not an indulgence in moderate distaste, no matter how moderately it may be expressed; it is not a theological scruple, or a political poker chip. It's an extremely bloody business and no one ought to tolerate it, much less promote it."Please, Chapel Hill News, try not to promote it.

Ruby Sinreich's picture

Amen, Damon

I'm so glad you are raising this issue. I'm sick of "journalists" hiding behind a veil of flase objectivity. People need to be accountable for their actions, and The Media is just people with bigger megaphones.(And what an eloquent argument!)

Priscilla Murphy's picture

What letters, editors, and letter writers are for

A few comments from my studies of what letters-to-the-editor are all about: 1. Getting a letter published is not really a matter of the writer's freedom of speech.  Letter writers are free to think and write whatever they want, but they can't have any expectation that the paper is required to publish it.
2. It's the editor who chooses what letters to publish.  However, no two editors have exactly the same approach.  Some pick letters that disagree with a specific editorial or raise a new issue as a matter of conscience and professionalism. Some just try to have a representative sampling -- if 50% are pro and 50% are con on an issue, they try to match that on the letters page.  Sometimes it's mainly a matter of how much space they have and how many letters have come in. And some purposely pick letters that will cause a ruckus or get a laugh (sells papers, right?). 
3.  Despite the control imposed by editors, they don't write the letters themselves.  They know, in fact, that the letters page can be as close a snapshot-reflection of the community's mind as you can hope to get. People talk to each other, talk back to each other, and the editor gives us a - literally - edited "clip" of the discussions.  4. Trying to explain and justify decisions about letters is, however, at least as fraught with pitfalls as making the original choices.   Parsing things like "offensive" vs. "hate speech," or defending choices about where to draw the line between reflecting dissent and encouraging the unacceptable -- these may be part of the job, but they also become part of the community's discussion, as they have here. Personally, I was revolted by the anti-gay letters.  However, with the evidence of that vile mindset put before us, those letters became valuable for having provoked the outraged public outcry against them -- which editor Schultz duly published.  He (Schultz) could have castigated them himself but that wouldn't have been nearly as powerful as having the community do it. 

Speaking of public outcry

Here's a another important chance on a broader level: http://equalitync.org/news1/equality-nc-joins-other-statewide-organizations-for-rally-against-the-anti-lgbt-amendment

"On Tuesday, September 13, at noon, Equality NC will join a coalition of pro-equality organizations, as well as supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) rights from across the state, to convene outside of the state capitol for a rally urging legislators to oppose North Carolina’s proposed anti-LGBT constitutional amendment. The rally on Halifax Mall will take place during a special legislative session on constitutional amendments beginning September 12, and will coincide with a predicted vote on House Bill 777/Senate Bill 106, the “anti-LGBT amendment,” that would ban same-sex marriage (as state statute already does), as well as prohibit civil unions and nullify domestic partnership benefits." 

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=179355332136086

"Tuesday, September 13 · 12:00pm - 1:30pmHalifax Mall (just outside of the General Assembly Legislative Building)300 N Salisbury St, Government ComplexRaleigh, NC"  
Geoff Gilson's picture

Bedtime Story

You know, sometimes we just make things too complicated. Personally, I'm not in favor of too much of any kind of censorship. And OP and I have had our brushes on that in the past. But, there are statements that are offensive, and should not be allowed.Damon, I pick up on your point about why it is that we have Editors. Rather than having some long-winded letters/comment policy, why don't we just ask Editors (of OP, CHN, whatever) to trust their own judgement, and introduce this as their letters/comment policy: If I'm prepared to read it to my five year old, before they go to sleep, it's ok.