This note represents a letter to the community as well as my own attempt to sort through how to be a good ally against on-campus racism while still exhibiting proper journalistic ethics—ethics that demand free and open discourse.
In an article I wrote earlier this year, “We Owe Each Other a Moral Community,” I said that to create a moral community “we need to talk to one another, to stop judging our fellow classmates—way too many of us are already judges—and to start empathizing with them instead.” I wrote that the value added of an independent paper like The Harvard Law Record, in addition to publishing investigative pieces the law school won’t touch, is that it provides a forum for law students to speak with each other, to learn from each other, to take advantage of all the diversity (not enough) that this place has to offer, including our ideological diversity.
We can’t treat one another with empathy, I wrote, unless we value each others’ opinions. No one likes to feel like they aren’t being listened to; no one likes to feel essentialized, pigeonholed, told that they are wrong and that they have nothing of value to say simply because they belong to X gender, X race, X political party. Such a feeling of marginalization is the forceful complaint of African-American student protestors.
But despite my leftist political beliefs, as the editor-in-chief of a newspaper that exists for the entire student community, I’m cognizant of journalistic ethics requiring free discourse and fairness. That’s why it felt so disheartening to receive a few immensely critical text messages after accepting Bill Barlow’s conservative “Fascism at Yale” piece for publication, all accusing me of committing a bigoted wrong, of a brazen assault against the progressive cause, simply because I didn’t censor his op-ed. (I’ve borne similar criticisms after publishing other right-wing pieces.)
My response to each message was the same: I’m the editor-in-chief of a newspaper. If you dislike an article, take it up with that article’s author and submit a response for consideration—it will likely be published.
But my role is editor-in-chief—not thought-policeman-in-chief.
As the law school’s newspaper, present since 1946, The Record simply will not censor articles by ideology unless they constitute invidious hate speech. We can’t—or we would be abdicating our role. While I might be wary of publishing conservative articles due to some students calling me (as one did) a “bigot,” arguing that if it were not for my white male privilege I would recognize that censoring articles is the legitimate way to go, that’s my problem. I can deal with that, especially because I grew up in a Lebanese family where heated arguments are the norm. Anyone who wants to dissect my political beliefs for “ideological purity” (a scary concept) can simply google my name. Anyone who thinks The Record is a conservative-leaning publication is living in an alternate universe. And organizations like Royall Must Fall would be the first to tell you that I’m more than happy—delighted—to publish leftist opinions.
But while I’m a progressive—though I maintain that #RoyallMustFall, though I felt utter nausea at seeing tape slapped over the faces of four professors whose courses I’ve taken, though I know with iron certainty that systemic racism pervades this campus—I’m also a student journalist. I won’t censor unpopular opinions. Period.
A humble recognition of how much we don’t know is a pre-requisite to respectful discourse that stands a fighting chance of changing the other side’s mind. In a world where Donald Trump is (God help us) the leading Republican, digesting the sorts of conservative arguments that are made every single minute off this campus can only be prudent for even the most progressive, intractable students—after all, it’s a truth as old as Sun Tzu that to effectively fight one’s foes, one must know them, inside and out.
So to my progressive friends who maintain that I should have censored Bill’s op-ed: Such openness doesn’t make me illiberal. Publishing articles I disagree with makes me as liberal as they come.
More importantly, it’s my duty as a student journalist.
Michael Shammas ’16 is the editor-in-chief of The Harvard Law Record.