OSU incident a reminder for Press Freedom Day

"We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people."

-- John F. Kennedy

David Williams is a young man. And young men sometimes make unwise choices.

Williams tackled the subject of race for his column in the Daily Barometer, the student newspaper at Oregon State University.

He found himself booted off the newspaper staff and right into the middle of a controversy.

Williams borrowed many key points -- and some phrases -- from columnist Leonard Pitts of the Detroit Free Press. Pitts argued that African-Americans too quickly defend other African-Americans accused of wrongdoing.

He cited singer and accused child pornographer R. Kelly as an example.

Williams -- lacking Pitts' depth and sophistication -- extrapolated from this that the black community lacks sufficiently moral role models.

It was an absurd point.

Of course African-Americans have moral role models. Look at African-Americans from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. Williams only cited dysfunctional African-American entertainers and athletes.


No group should be judged on the character of their celebrities. You can't draw conclusions about black Americans based on O.J. Simpson any more than you can draw conclusions about white Americans based on Bing Crosby.

(A lot of white people liked Bing Crosby too but he drank to excess and beat his children.)

Pitts made a valid argument. Williams took Pitts' column and reached the reducto ad absurdum of Pitts' point of view. Young people will do that from time to time.

They are sometimes long on opinions and short on nuances. Points have a nasty habit of flying right over their heads.

Having said that, I hasten to add that Williams does not have a monopoly on unwise choices. His editors trumped his lack of wisdom by getting rid of him.

Their decision flies in the face of the First Amendment.

Pitts later addressed the incident in his own column.

Pitts -- comparing Williams' column to another incident where a white person made racially insensitive remarks -- said "the insult had indeed not risen from malice, but from a simple lack of knowledge. That means it can be cured by information.

"And most people are willing to accept information, provided it's offered in a way that doesn't make them feel six inches tall."

People that height generally don't listen. They become angry and defensive. So I am not inclined to jump on either Williams or his editors.

We have what those of us who are parents call "a teachable moment."

Some people see racism in Williams' column. Others see political correctness run amok in the editors decision. I just see a group of young people trying to find their way.

Young people often make mistakes. Williams made a mistake writing an overly simplistic column. His editors made a mistake in dumping him for his own legitimate -- albeit clumsy -- point of view.

Both mistakes can be corrected with education, and with any luck, never happen again.

Journalists throughout the globe will celebrate Saturday, May 3, as World Press Freedom Day.

The young journalists of the Daily Barometer no doubt feel passionately -- as almost all journalists do -- about freedom of the press.

This incident serves as a reminder not just for them, but for all of us, that freedom of the press is seldom easy. It requires that we tolerate -- even welcome -- opinions other than our own.

The human brain has an almost autonomic reflex to suppress ideas it finds abhorrent. We journalists like to pretend we are objective and above such primitive instincts.

To be honest, however, people sometimes write letters to the editor that make my skin crawl. Part of us wants to censor them or, at the very least, respond in kind.

Yet I keep silent. We will not run letters that are libelous, obscene or in bad taste. Yet we have never censored a letter because it offers an opinion different from our own.

A quote taped on my monitor always puts things in perspective. It's from William Allen White, who edited the rural community newspaper in Emporia, Kan. White said:

"You tell me the law is above freedom of utterance. And I reply that you can have no wise laws nor free enforcement of wise laws unless there is the free expression of the wisdom of the people and, alas, their folly with it. But if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison and the wisdom will survive. That is the history of the race."

Something for all of us to think about on the week of World Press Freedom Day.

(Tom Henderson is the managing editor of the Itemizer-Observer. He promises to go back to being funny next week.)


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