While the Be the Change wall in Waunakee has invited constructive, thoughtful comments that can inspire instructive conversations, some have also chalked what appear to be White Supremacist lettering, particularly those three Ks.
The wall by the former South Street library was intended to invite ideas, asking the question: What does diversity look like? The intent was to build a sense of community around this.
But unfortunately, not all seem to share a common goal in this regard. And so a wall monitor group has formed, in some cases washing away the more destructive messages; in other instances, rewriting them.
In a sense, the Create Waunakee committee and its wall monitor group have become akin to newspaper editors. We editors open up our opinion pages to readers every week and invite them to share their views. In some cases, inflammatory letters cause editors to take pause and consider how free they really want the speech they print to be.
A friend shared a Washington Post article from July 18 exploring this dilemma. What do newspaper editors do when they receive a letter in support of white supremacy and even slavery?
The South Carolina newspaper, Spartanburg Herald-Journal, printed a letter from John C. Calhoun that stated, “God rewards goodness and intelligence; and that slavery is how He justly punishes ignorance, sloth and depravity.”
The newspaper’s readers were appalled, and afterwards, the editor apologized and said the letter should have never been printed and caused pain in the community.
Other newspaper editors are unapologetic about allowing radical ideas to be expressed in the letters-to-the-editor section. In New York’s Nassau County, the publisher of Island Now allows all ideas to surface in print, noting that other readers will counter such views.
The State of Columbia, S.C., published a letter praising “Christian slavery.” Its editor, Cindy Ross Scoppe, defended her actions, saying the letters-to-the-editor section is a “public forum where we hold a mirror up to our community, so it can examine it, warts and all.”
Other newspaper editors, such as those in our news group, follow guidelines in deciding what to print, drawing the line at personal attacks, name calling and hate speech. In some cases, we edit letters to meet these same guidelines.
But it’s a fine line, particularly for an institution founded on the principle of free speech.
In general at the Tribune, preference is given to local residents’ views. Letters supporting one presidential candidate over the other sent to newspapers all around the state from say, a person in Wausau who has never read the Tribune won’t make it into print. We do print letters that address specific Tribune articles or issues particular to the Waunakee area from people who live outside of the community.
In a few cases, inflammatory or simply nonfactual content is edited.
Very rarely, letters from those in the community are kept from print. Those instances have occurred when a letter personally attacks a business or individual.
But the Be the Change wall’s purpose is different from the newspaper’s op-ed pages. The wall was intended to invite ideas on diversity. Its monitors are adhering to this standard, not tolerating ideas meant to exclude or divide people in the community.
Still, it exemplifies the difficult choices we face when we open up a forum for public comment.