“I disapprove of what you say, but I will fight to the death your right to say it.”
Beatrice Evelyn Hall, ‘The Friends of Voltaire,’ 1906
A viral explosion of passionate, angry responses to a guest column in our opinion section last Sunday hurled our newspaper and our community into a controversial firestorm.
So now, with the flames finally dying down, we would like to explain the role of the opinion page in a newspaper — which, it appears, we can never do too often — as well as offer perspective on the outcry.
For starters, there is a distinct difference between the opinion page and the rest of the newspaper. While both sections attempt to inform and educate readers, the opinion page, by its very definition, is biased.
Reporters writing news and feature stories strive for objectivity. Opinion writers strive to make a point, provoke thought and discussion.
Also on the opinion page, we offer space for varying points of view — and not just those we agree with.
In mid-January, the Badger Club invited a guest speaker to talk about Japanese internment camps during World War II, and we published a summary of his talk.
Afterward, a professor from Columbia Basin College called to say he would like to provide another perspective to the Badger Club column. We agreed. Then came the uproar.
Readers detested his point of view, and said so online and in Letters to the Editor.
Some comments were civil. Many were not.
Some people were thoughtful. Others, more than likely, didn’t bother to read the whole column and responded only to pieces of it that were sent to them.
And as the online thread grew, so did the fury and vitriol.
Another CBC professor offered to write yet another column on the topic, which we published. His was well received, and the furor seemed to quell after that.
While we understand the strong reaction, we do have a concern: There were people who were not only upset by what was said in the controversial column, but also that we allowed the author to say it.
For journalists who believe in free speech and the freedom of the press, this is a mindset we cannot abide.
Here is where we are likely to end up taking more heat. But please, take a breath and think for a minute.
Silencing the speech does not eliminate the thought.
The best way to combat ideas we don’t like is to bring them out into the open, and then dispute them in the open.
Discussion — not suppression — is what changes attitudes.
Yet, we are seeing an alarming trend where people with unpopular views can’t speak their minds without fear of being verbally or physically attacked.
And that, frankly, is more frightening than any offensive comment that might come out of someone’s mouth.
The constitutional right to free speech is meant to protect everybody, but especially those with opinions others want to squelch.
Consider what happened last week at the University of California at Berkeley. An angry mob protesting a far-right, polarizing speaker invited by the school’s Republican club became so violent the event was canceled.
Protesters saw it as a victory because the speaker in question is known for being extremely offensive. The irony, though, is that shutting him down for his intolerance was, in itself, an intolerant act.
Tolerance is only a virtue when you possess it yourself — not when you demand it of others.
The opinion page of a newspaper is a point of entry where citizens, interest groups and policy makers can voice their positions on a wide variety of topics. We are custodians of thoughts, ideas and civil discourse.
And we must be as accepting as we can — even if that means publishing commentary that we don’t condone.