Daily Confusion: The Central Issues

The striking thing about the letters to the editor regarding vulgar items published by The Tech in the Daily Confusion (Aug. 31) is that nearly all evince fundamental misunderstandings of, variously, newspapers, editorial content, advertising content, editorial discretion, censorship, free speech, and harassment. The Tech should not have published the vulgar items because as the Editors’ Note (Sept. 11) declares, they violated The Tech’s internal standards for appropriate content. But The Tech’s policies are the only legitimate issue here. Much of what the letters raise, on both sides of the debate, is mistaken and obfuscatory.

Had The Tech refused to publish those items, it would not be censorship, as Cinjon Resnick ’10 and Emilio Jasso ’11 (Sept. 4) separately contend. No one has a right to publish anything in The Tech other than as determined by members of the organization. The Tech’s refusal to publish an advertisement — or a letter to the editor, or a news article, or a cartoon, etc. — constitutes an exercise of editorial discretion. Indeed, there is no requirement that The Tech publish the Daily Confusion at all. The Tech does so as a free, public-service advertisement, and as such, it has, and will exercise in the future, its right to demand that such advertising conform to its content standards and to refuse to publish such items as fail to so conform.

“Censorship” occurs only when someone, usually the government, interferes with someone’s free-speech rights, such as by censoring soldiers’ mail or reporters’ filings during war, or by enacting criminal or civil penalties for certain types of expression, such as countries with lèse majesté laws. Here, no one would be preventing East Campus or any group from expressing itself as it sees fit. Each could buy its own printing press or website, and each could publish whatever it wanted within the bounds of the law. But just as, in that scenario, The Tech could not compel another group to publish something written by The Tech, neither does any group have the right to force The Tech to publish something the group has written. When The Tech exercises that right, it is not improper “censorship”; it is appropriate “editorial discretion.”

On the other hand, although correct that the vulgar items should not have been published, Anna Babbi Klein (Sept. 4) is wrong in every other respect, often disturbingly so. Upon coming across some deeply offensive language and concepts in an advertisement for dormitory activities directed at freshmen, Klein did not simply stop reading and put down the newspaper. Instead, she went looking to see what other offensive things she might find. The examples she quotes appear on pages 11, 12 and 15 of the August 28 issue. No one forced Klein to pour over seven pages of newsprint in a painstaking hunt for vile words and suggestions.

Not content simply to express the outrage her study of the Daily Confusion yielded, Klein included in her letter the choicest morsels of prurience she could find to ensure that everyone who missed it the first time around (i.e., everyone who has no reason to read a listing of dormitory events during Residence Exploration) could be exposed to them. Usually writing is better when the author shows instead of tells, but as a “communications professional,” Klein should know that when addressing offensive material or correcting an error, you do not repeat the inappropriate words. You leave it to the readers to choose for themselves if they want to go to the original to see for themselves.

Finally, Klein confuses a right not to be harassed with a right not to be offended. Consistent with academic freedom is the right to express offensive ideas and to use offensive language. Were MIT a state university, a policy that punished offensive writings would violate the First Amendment (and it is important to note that because MIT is a private institution, there is no First Amendment issue here; the First Amendment applies only to conduct by the government). No one threatened or intimidated Klein. No one came into her office and made her see or listen to offensive language or concepts. Had any harassment actually occurred here, it would be Klein harassing herself by wallowing in something she found deeply offensive. If Klein’s theory of harassment were correct, one could go to the MIT Libraries, read one of its copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and then charge the Libraries with harassment because of all the offensive language and concepts in that book. People who set out to offend themselves deserve what they get and have only themselves to blame.

Chancellor Phillip L. Clay ’75 and the three deans who cosigned his letter (Sept. 8) recognize that there is a right to publish offensive material, and that the real issue is not one of harassment but of responsibility: “Having the right to publish something does not mean that it is responsible to do so.” However, their urgence that The Tech remove the Daily Confusion from its web archive is ill conceived. The Tech’s policy is to maintain its archives as a historical record. That something should not have been published in the first instance does not mean that it should be deleted after the fact and sent down an Orwellian memory hole. Particularly here, excising the Daily Confusion items from The Tech’s archives would leave the letters to the editor and Editors’ Note both without any context and with a number of the offensive phrases intact, the worst of both worlds. Deleting or redacting the letters would be inappropriate because they form a part (however poorly reasoned) of an important debate regarding the rights and responsibilities of the MIT campus newspaper.

Thus, as noted above, the only legitimate issue here is what standards The Tech should apply to offensive content and whether the material in question violates those standards. Historically, The Tech usually has followed Associate Press style and excluded profanity from its editorial and advertising content unless there was an important editorial reason to publish it. Resnick’s argument goes astray again on this point. The issue is not “the newspaper’s ability to report fairly and honestly.” That ability would only be implicated if The Tech were writing a story about how East Campus was presenting itself to freshmen. Then there likely would be a vigorous debate in the newsroom about how much of the language to publish, balancing the readers’ interest in having the information to form their own judgments against their interest in not being bombarded with offensive language and concepts. Standards for excluding advertising, however, tend to be stricter because no editorial purpose is implicated. Over the years, The Tech has chosen not to run advertisements not only because of offensive language, but because of offensive concepts, like Holocaust denial, or because the industries were offensive to The Tech, such as cigarette advertising.

The Daily Confusion is in a category of its own because the point of the advertisement is, in part, to reveal the character (or lack thereof) of the living groups through the words they choose. Jasso’s letter to that effect represents a legitimate concern and point of view.

There is also the fact that The Tech is a university newspaper with both a student and non-student readership, and that the Daily Confusion is targeted at only the student portion of the audience. University students have been writing offensive things in their newspapers for more than 40 years. It is a community that is generally more accepting of vulgarity than the population at large — The Tech is not writing for a conservative, adult readership. Notably, all of the people who wrote to complain about the Daily Confusion were administrators; all of the people who wrote in support of the items were students.

But as Clay and the deans might point out, that a community is accepting of base presentations does not imply that its newspaper should pander to that acceptance. The Tech has determined for itself that groups who want to portray themselves in its pages as alternative or outrageous should be able to do so without being outrageous in the process. As with Klein’s letter, this is a rare situation where the writing would be better and more effective if the author tells instead of shows.

As frequently happens, the letter writers on both sides of this issue seem not to appreciate that there is, in fact, another side. As disturbing as Klein’s behavior is the insistence by officers of the Dormitory Council that there is nothing wrong with attempting to convey a living group’s tolerance for extreme points of view by flaunting sexually explicit and misogynistic statements. If that were so, then why were there no offensive racist remarks? A reader might legitimately question whether the items’ authors believed anti-women expressions were acceptable but not anti-minority statements.

Although expressing such ideas in print is not harassment, imposing them on a neighbor or co-worker is. It is no defense to say, “This is our sense of humor, and if you do not like it, live or work some place else.” That is the classic example of unreasonably creating a hostile environment. Unlike Klein, who could simply have thrown away the newspaper and not been bothered again, a dormitory resident or co-worker confronted with such expressions is forced either to endure them or to leave, which is unfair and unreasonable. If the intent of the items were to convey the living group’s enormous capacity for humor and tolerance, it failed miserably. If the authors continue to express themselves in this way when they enter the workplace, they will find that they will be fired and possibly sued.

Although The Tech properly regrets the error in publishing the vulgar items, it has led to a constructive discussion about the organization’s role, rights, and responsibilities. There is also the opportunity for both students and administrators to reflect on their own conduct and the merits of points of view different from their own. That result is something not to be regretted in the least.

Robert E. Malchman ’85 is a member of the Massachusetts and New York bars, a former Editor in Chief of The Tech and a member of its Advisory Board.