Our Opinion: Free speech, press, under assault on campuses

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While it is encouraging to see college students actively involved in issues like civil rights, there is a self-righteous and reactionary element to this that is disturbing.

An example comes from well-regarded Smith College in nearby Northampton. Last week, students organized a sit-in to bring attention to issues of racism on the Smith campus and other campuses around the country in the wake of events at the University of Missouri. Undeniably a worthy endeavor.

Organizers invited the local media to cover the sit-in but only on the organizers' terms, which is where problems arose. The media were invited to "participate in our action, not simply to document it from an outside perspective." adding the media's support would be welcomed if "your media outlet would be open to joining us in solidarity."

The invitation, condescending in tone and demonstrating an alarming lack of knowledge of or respect for the role of the free press, was provided to Eric Wemple, media blogger for The Washington Post, by Larry Parnass, editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton. Mr. Parnass and the Hampshire Gazette declined to cover the sit-in, as did Springfield-based MassLive.com, which received a similar mandate. "We didn't agree to that demand and we were subsequently banned from the event," Editor in chief Ed Kubosiak told the Wemple blog.

This regrettable incident speaks to the importance of civics education in the public schools and in colleges, private and public. Students at Smith and the other colleges and universities where free speech is currently under attack should know that objectivity is fundamental to a free press, which is in turn fundamental to a free society. The press takes its marching orders from government and/or from pressure groups in restrictive societies, not in our society.

The dismissive phrase requesting the media to participate in the action "not simply to document it from an outside perspective" is particularly appalling. Documenting events from an outside perspective is essentially the definition of a journalist's role, and there is nothing simple about it when covering complex and explosive issues.

The media can and do take principled stands, of course. The organizers' request that "you will join us in the movement to eliminate the rampant racism in United States' higher education" echoes the long-standing editorial page policy of The Berkshire Eagle on issues of racism. News coverage, however, is tainted if movements are joined rather than reported upon from "an outside perspective."

The sit-in at Smith and other schools comes in response to racial incidents throughout America, specifically the far too common shootings of unarmed blacks by white police officers. The students' anger and desire to make a statement are understandable. Their actions also come in the context of an ugly presidential campaign defined by the likes of Republican candidate Donald Trump. After an activist who shouted "Black lives matter" at an Alabama rally was pushed around by Trump supporters last week, the candidate told Fox News that "Maybe he should have been roughed up."

However, adopting Trump-style bully boy tactics in response to people who speak up in defense of free speech, as has happened at Yale and the University of Missouri, is absolutely wrong. It does grievous harm to an otherwise worthy cause.

At Amherst College, not far from Smith College, a student group recently demanded that administrators punish students distributing leaflets defending free speech for being "racially insensitive." Defenders of that basic American right should be applauded, not punished, and the student group should know that taking free speech rights away from anyone jeopardizes the free speech rights of all. In the United States, people freely share their views, no matter how repugnant, and others freely debunk them, while the media report on both. That is how it works and always must work in our free society.


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