The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” At the very foundation of American freedom is the right of every citizen to self-expression, and more than that, to speak freely to people in power.
This freedom includes the freedom of the press. It is not a comfortable freedom. It has annoyed people practically from its inception, but our Founding Fathers knew well how necessary it was. Without the freely-circulated pamphlets of Thomas Paine, or the later publication of the Federalist Papers, America would not have come into existence, nor would it have long held what unity it had.
The connection between Sean McGrady’s writing, Chad Kotz’s comic, and a principle of government may seem tenuous, but it is not. On March 13, I pulled Kotz’s comic from the newspaper because of four emails, from disparate sources, saying that if the comic remained public, violence would ensue. One email said that a member of the Student Government Association was “uttering murderous threats,” and was so unstable that the writer of the email was afraid students would be physically injured.
Unwilling to be responsible, even indirectly, for mayhem and injury, I pulled the comic from the paper. It didn’t feel right at the time, and now I understand why.
In America, we do not govern, or consent to be governed, by fear and intimidation. In fact, we are currently at war with nations who do govern by these practices, and we reserve for them a disdain that we back up with our very lives. When we allow ourselves to be bullied by someone who feels that the freedom of speech does not extend to criticism of themselves, we have brought our own Constitution into disrepute, and we have mocked the sacrifices of the men and women who, even now, defend those freedoms in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The democratic process is predicated on the ability of Americans to critique their leaders. No one likes criticism, but used wisely, even unjust criticism can create a better government and a more accountable press. The proper response to a critique is a dialog, a discussion of the underlying issues; it is not “murderous threats.” The defense against libel is to prove the allegations false. The reporter whose invective exceeds the merit of the story pays the very high price of his or her credibility. The system balances.
Unless someone, through “murderous threats,” succeeds in censorship. Then the system has broken down, the dialogue is stopped, the government is no longer accountable, and the culture of intimidation proceeds unchecked.
As for my own role, I am heartily sorry that I capitulated to threats. It is one thing to respond to a reasoned approach, someone pointing out a demonstrable falsehood in what is being said, or an unreasonable harshness in the manner in which it is said. Those things can be negotiated and discussed. Threats cannot be negotiated; they must be resisted, and I failed to do that.
In that failure, I also failed the staff of the Knight Rider, the student body at NRCC, and even the foundational principles of America itself. A free press, perhaps especially a free press operated by people just learning what it means to participate in a democratic society, must not be susceptible to bullying.
Had violence ensued because of the comic, it would have been a grave responsibility to bear, but not, I think, so great as the responsibility to uphold the First Amendment. I am not charged with keeping people happy, or, alas, even safe; they have to do that themselves. I am charged with keeping the press free, and henceforth promise to do that.