June 1, 2007

Freedom of expression can offend

A college newspaper should exercise caution before throwing around the weight of its opinion—especially when it starts to take the moral high ground over specific individuals’ personal lives, whether they are administrators or not.

As former editor-in-chief of the Maroon, I’m no stranger to the fact that the unsigned editorial can be tricky to write, particularly because the authors know the considerable impact of the piece around campus. I’ll be the first to tell you that my own editorial board had its share of faulty editorials due to poor research or silly issues. With that in mind, I commend the current board’s desire to improve pre-writing research and avoid jumping to conclusions. But the Maroon’s most recent unsigned editorial (“Administrators Should Exercise Caution Online,” 5/25/07), presents two types of problems: one in the nature of the piece and one in its actual argument.

Let’s start with the nature of the piece. In the past, the Maroon deliberately chose not to write a full unsigned against Kyle Lee for his infamous e-mail scandal when he expressed his homophobia. The Maroon’s attack of an individual for actions within his personal life from an assumed moral high ground is as unfortunate and unnecessary as an elephant choosing to crush ants. Administrator or not, it is a bit much for an unsigned to go after one individual for his personal intellectual views. This brings me to my main argument.

The “isolated lapse of judgment” of which the Maroon accused Bean is one of an intellectual nature. Referring to the Facebook group’s title alone—“Fuck the Creationists”—and not the fact that Bean was in the group, the editorial says, “Are you offended? It is safe to assume that many members of the University community would be—especially given that the word ‘creationists’ could be replaced with any other label, with equal or greater effect.” To emphasize my point: That’s asking you if you’re offended by the group’s title alone, not Bean’s joining it.

But is it really safe to assume that many members of the U of C community would be offended by that statement? When the free-market economists running the University found out the commissioned statue outside Pick Hall was not only designed by a communist, but designed to show a hammer and sickle on the ground at noon on May 1, they left it up. Was it because they were lazy? No, it was because they thought that taking it down based solely on its intellectual perspective would go against the principles of this institution. Since when is this a place where thought offends anyone? Creationism is a specific religious-political view—it does not directly refer to a specific denomination, but a theological and thus intellectual/philosophical idea. Why is an administrator not allowed that same basic right to express his intellectual opinion? Why is “Fuck the Creationists” no more allowed than “Fuck the Straussians?” God forbid Austin Bean joined a group called “Fuck the Scientologists.” Unlike creationism, that’s an actual religion. I’m sure the Maroon would be ready to criticize him for that in a flash.

Facebook profiles are all about personal expression, whether that’s expressing a political view or showing off pictures of your dog. Since when do administrators have to suspend their basic right to express their political or intellectual views within the explicit context of their personal lives? The spirit of this campus’s emphasis on open intellectual diversity parallels the spirit of the First Amendment right to free expression. Granted, some protocol is more appropriate for people of certain stature, but the best we can do is hope the people of that stature live up to appropriateness (i.e. not showing pictures of themselves naked). But frankly, Bean did not cross any line of inappropriateness. Even if he had, given the nature of personal expression, I doubt that it would have merited an unsigned editorial, let alone one so morally indignant.