Op-ed on Black Lives Matter offends campus. Now what?

A controversy at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University is symptomatic of an increasing reality. Commentary and opinion in journalism is declining as a roadmap to a healthy exchange of ideas.

A conservative student at the liberal university, Bryan Stascavage, wrote a commentary for the Wesleyan Argus newspaper critical of Black Lives Matter.

The article was partially built on a chant from a Twin Cities Black Lives Matter march last month. In it, Stascavage insisted the movement is under the control of extremists and is not a productive movement.

Perhaps. But that doesn’t explain Black Lives Matter rallies from cheering after an officer is killed, chanting that they want more pigs to fry like bacon. That wasn’t one or two people. The movement also doesn’t want to be associated with looters and rioters, calling them opportunistic. But it is plausible that Black Lives Matter has created the conditions for these individuals to exploit for their own personal gain.

I warned in an article last semester that a movement that does not combat its own extremists will quickly run into trouble. The reasons why are now self-evident. If Black Lives Matter is going to be the one responsible for generating these conversations, then a significant portion of that conversation needs to be about peace. They need to stand with police units that lose a member, decrying it with as much passion as they do when a police officer kills an unarmed civilian.

Smith does have a point, though. An organization cannot be labeled based of a small percentage of their membership. There is a reason why so many have shown up to protests across the country: there is clearly something wrong, and wrong enough to motivate them to exit their homes and express their frustration publicly. That is no small effort. The system is clearly failing many, and unfortunately they feel like they will only be listened to if their protests reach the front pages of the news. And so far, they are correct.

Not surprisingly, the commentary generated plenty of heat. Supporters started a movement to shut down the newspaper.

So the newspaper’s editor, Rebecca Brill, apologized for it, and surrendered to demands that an editorial be run on the front page.

… we acknowledge that the way in which the op-ed was published gave the writer’s words validity. First and foremost, we apologize for our carelessness in fact-checking. The op-ed cites inaccurate statistics and twists facts. As Wesleyan’s student newspaper, it is our responsibility to provide our readership with accurate information. We vow to raise our standards of journalism and to fact-check questionable information cited in articles, including those in the Opinion section, prior to publication.

Additionally, the piece was published without a counter-argument in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement alongside it, and this lack of balance gave too much weight to the views expressed in the op-ed. We should have addressed the unevenness of the Opinion section in Tuesday’s issue prior to publication. In the future, we will carefully consider the context in which articles are published and work to represent a wider variety of views, even if this entails holding off on publishing a particular op-ed until we have appropriate material to run with it.

Representing more diverse views, backgrounds, and stories in The Argus is a goal we set for ourselves last semester, and while we have made progress in our coverage of student of color events, we still have a long way to go. Though The Argus is completely run by volunteers, its staff is and has long been primarily white.

We recognize that because of this and in light of the Black Lives Matter op-ed, students of color may not feel comfortable or welcome writing for The Argus. Moving forward, making our spaces available to all students will be our top priority, and we want to enthusiastically encourage students of color to contribute to all of The Argus’ sections and to use The Argus as a platform to share their experiences and opinions.

“It’s unfortunate that the Argus was so quick to backpedal on its stance of providing a multitude of varying opinions, and returned to its habit of placating sensibilities,” a reader responded. “Being diverse in your opinions isn’t easy. You’re going to have to step on some toes. It’s a shame that it couldn’t take the heat.”

Editor Brill, appearing on NPR’s “Here & Now” (not carried by MPR), today said she agrees with the “core of the petition,” which notes the editorial staff is white and does a poor job of covering events involving students of color.

“It’d be impossible to ignore the intense pain the op-ed caused for the community,” she said. “At the end of the day we don’t apologize for publishing the op-ed because we believe everyone has the right to their own opinion. But we put our fellow students in a really difficult position and that was hard for us to grapple with.”

Meghna Chakrabarti of “Here & Now” said what’s at risk is dialogue on college campuses.

“Debates can raise intense emotions, Wesleyan president Michael Roth wrote in a blog post this week, “but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.”

“The biggest problem with treating this as a freedom of speech issue is that this speech actively silences other speech,” countered a member of the senior class in the post’s comments section (which is well worth reading, by the way).

“The solution to offensive speech is more speech,” said another.