Max Branscomb, faculty advisor for Southwestern College's student newspaper, The Sun, couldn't have put it better: “The First Amendment is a beautiful and ugly thing,” he said Thursday at a rally staged to protest an article that ran on The Sun's Dec. 8 op/ed page. Most of the paper's staff didn't agree with the article, Branscomb said, nor did he care for it, but to quash it would have been censorship.
“Retract the article. Swallow your pride and do it,” someone from the crowd yelled back.
Shannon Pagano, editor-in-chief of The Sun when the article ran, said there would be no retraction. “How can you apologize for another human being's opinion?” she asked pointing out that to do so would undermine the purpose of an op/ed page.
The opinion at issue is that of 19-year-old Nathaniel Pownell, a second-semester Southwestern student and a staff writer at The Sun. Published in the paper's “Viewpoints” section, Pownell's article took the position that illegal immigrants coming to the U.S. from Mexico are a burden on the state and national economy. The article cited numbers-taxpayers foot a $72-million-plus bill to cover immigrants' healthcare needs, for example-that Pownell told CityBeat he got from an Operation Gatekeeper-related website. He admitted that he's since been unable to find that website, and he agrees that omitting the source of his supporting facts damages the credibility of his argument. “That was a mistake on my part, and I apologize,” he said.
But it's not the arguable stats that many Southwestern students—80 percent of whom are Latino—took offense to, but rather one particular sentence: “It is time to burn the leaches [sic] off our society and crack down on the people who flagrantly take advantage of America's wealth and prosperity,” Pownell opined.
Pownell, whose co-workers at The Sun rib him as “The Republican,” says the leech-burning bit was an economic metaphor and nothing more. “It wasn't written as a social metaphor,” he said. “The way you get rid of illegal immigrants, in my opinion, is you cut their benefits.”
But Gaby Arenivas, also a Southwestern student and co-chair of the Eracism Coalition, a student-led group formed in the wake of Pownell's article, said some people could interpret Pownell's point literally, or, at the very least, his sentiments could motivate hate crimes against Mexican immigrants. “If you're a racist person to begin with and you see an article like this,” she said, “this is how hate attacks and racism start.”
At the rally Thursday, angry students called Pownell's words “hate speech,” a category of expression often thought to fall outside First Amendment protection. David Hudson, an attorney with the Virginia-based First Amendment Center, reviewed parts of Pownell's article for CityBeat and said those words would have to pose what's known as a “true threat”—a direct incitement to harm or intimidate an individual or group. “If it said something like, ‘Let's go burn down their houses,' that might qualify as incitement,” he said. “But one of the hallmark principles of the First Amendment is that it does protect offensive expression.”
“A lot of our First-Amendment principles comes from speech that's on the edge,” he added.
Pagano said it's The Sun's goal to present diverse opinions on the “Viewpoints” page. Pownell had been pressing her to run the article since the beginning of the fall semester, she said, and she hesitated because she knew there'd be a response—though nothing to the extent displayed at Thursday's rally. “But in the end, we are being contradictory to ourselves, to the First Amendment, if we are censoring within our own department,” Pagano said.
At the rally, Branscomb promised students the paper would run every letter to the editor submitted in response to the article. As of Friday, they'd only received four letters, said Chris Wybenga, the paper's current editor. Two of those letters supported Pownell, he said.
Arenivas said her group has set up an e-mail account and plans to turn over to The Sun's editorial board all the letters they receive. She said students would be asking administrators to halve The Sun's budget and allow another group to start up a campus paper. “We'll dedicate ourselves to writing a newspaper that doesn't attack anyone,” she said.
Pagano said she welcomes-and hopes-that students upset over Pownell's article will come to The Sun's office to talk to her and other editors. “We've had some students come up here who've been angry... and they've talked to some of the editors and they left having... gained both sides of the story,” she said.
“In the end, that's all we can ask for.”