Monday, April 5, 2010

A follow-up on the American University newspaper column

It's been a week since I wrote about Alex Knepper, the American University columnist whose writing, which was printed in the student newspaper The Eagle and published on the paper's Web site, claimed that a woman who is at a party and is drunk and goes back to man's room has thus given consent to sex. (I'm not re-quoting it or re-linking to it, but both are available at my previous blog post, or, you know, through a Google search.) And in this past week, I've read many articles about what he said, about the response on campus, the newspaper's apology, and a whole host of related topics.

For some reason, I feel the need to respond to some of this, fully aware it could bring on another round of name-calling and typical accusations lodged against women who speak up.

Let's start with the idea that the author has been, or in the future will be, censored, or that his free speech rights have somehow been or will be violated. (I touched on this a bit last time, but clearly people get confused on what is what re: free speech.) An acquaintance sent me a link to an article today, asking for my thoughts on it. Here's the article, headlined "Why Won’t AU Profs Defend Free Speech?" There's a similar article here, headlined "American University’s Rape of the First Amendment." (See what they did there? And you just know they think they are hilarious. Also, to warn you, both articles side with Knepper's views of date rape.) Also, my understanding is that talk of free speech and censorship has been a big part of the debate on campus. So I'm going to post (most of) what I told my acquaintance who sent me the link:
Here's the thing: when or where was Alex Knepper's free speech EVER violated? Even a little? His column WAS published. No "free speech" violation there. So, people got mad at what he wrote. That's their right, too. Also their right to express their anger, however they see fit, within the law. (I do agree that trashing the papers is the wrong approach.) Requesting a journalist, of any kind, resign is nothing new in this country. Reacting strongly to something in a newspaper: also not new. A newspaper publishing an apology for something it printed? Happens every single day.

The article you linked me to is obviously biased; Knepper writes for them. As far as I can tell, they're trying to make him into a martyr for their "side." You can see they also agree with his claim that date rape can't happen in certain circumstances, which is not only complete bullshit, but the very thing that pissed everyone off in the first place, when Alex said it in his column. They're trying to keep the debate alive, be on his side, support one of their own, blah blah blah.

So they do what all kinds of people do when they have nowhere left to turn with their argument: they get indignant and claim someone's free speech was violated. But the simple truth is, it wasn't. The student newspaper is still a newspaper, and it is under ZERO obligation to publish anything. If, as someone said in a comment on a different story, someone on staff wrote a column titled "Why the Holocaust was awesome," the paper doesn't have to print it. And if they choose not to, that is not violating anyone's free speech. Not even a little bit. Every newspaper has its own set of standards, and anything that doesn't meet those standards does not have to be printed just because someone wants it to be. (To be sure, the Eagle's standards were basically "whatever you say is fine with us," and that apology referenced in the story is part of their explanation that they are, in the future, going to have higher standards. That, again, is not the same as censorship or violating someone's free speech.)

Alex himself said that his column went through five edits to remove the "more inflammatory" parts of his column. That act is also not violating his free speech, nor is it censorship. It's editing. Something every newspaper does (or should do, anyway) to everything that it prints, on paper or online. Even letters to the editor have been and can be edited.

Alex Knepper is just as free as the rest of us to voice his opinion, but no one is required to give him a venue for that opinion. These claims of "free speech" being violated are nothing more than a sideshow. Let's not forget that what he did write was completely and without question wrong. The definition of rape isn't an "opinion." And if anything, the newspaper itself is to blame for not questioning his claim about it before publishing what he wrote. (And had they, that would not have been violating his free speech or censorship either. It would be journalism.)
TO BE SURE: Knepper has many, many outlets to make his voice heard. He can get an actual soapbox and stand on the corner and talk all day, if he so chooses. (Or so I assume, given how many people did that very thing on my college camppus.) He can distribute his own publication, he can start a blog if he doesn't have one, and on and on. So, to be absolutely sure we are clear here, no one has violated his free speech. No one has censored him. At. All. (And he already writes for other outlets besides the Eagle, for the record.)

As to the rest of the situation: The Eagle has decided to apologize for running Knepper's column "as is," and have decided to revise their policy on how they handle columnists. Personally, I think that's a good idea -- every newspaper should have such guidelines, student paper or not. There should, in my opinion, never be a situation that removes editors from editing, or from deciding to pull a story, hold a column, etc. However, had they chosen to stand by their decision to publish the column as-is, that is also an equally legitimate position to take. It is up to a newspaper to define itself. Saying that they're revising their policies is not the same as saying "we won't publish anything controversial." The apology blatantly makes that point. Either decision they made was going to be met with criticism from someone. I happen to think they made the right call. (If you haven't read it yet, there is also a letter from the editor herself, and a letter to the editor from the vice president of campus life and the provost. Both are worth reading. Also, the Washington Post wrote about the apology.)

Journalism and all it entails is important to me. (I am a journalist, by day.) But more important to me than journalism: people not being raped. And I hope so much that, overall, the American University campus does not agree with what Knepper said about date rape. I so hope that no one read his column and thought to themselves "You know what? He's right. That is consent!" Look, I'm fully aware of what all happens with drinking and sex on a college campus. Been there, done that. I know there are situations that are unclear. But to ever say a drunk woman is asking for it is wrong, regardless of the situation. To say that going to a guy's room is consent is wrong, regardless of the situation. I'm aware we all have personal responsibility, as Knepper keeps wanting to point out. So how about rapists take some, and, you know, not rape. Because those statements from Knepper about date rape? Those statements, and those like them, intentionally or not, absolve a rapist from taking personal responsibility. Rapists and rape apologists will always find a way to blame the victim. A reminder to those people: Another person's body is not yours for the taking. Only rapists can prevent rape.

More reading:
The Eagle: "New sexual assault policies considered."
The Eagle: "Rape survivor shares her personal stories."
Men Can Stop Rape: "Date Rape is a Crime, not an “Incoherent Concept” - Our Response to the AU Column."

Have you written or read something on this subject that should be included in the "More reading" list? Leave it in the comments, e-mail it to me at rosiered23 (at) sparecandy (dot) com, or send it to me on Twitter.

1 comment:

Razor said...

It seems the people crying about their free speech rights being "violated," want to violate the free speech rights of others. Knepper exercised his right to free speech, and those who disagreed with the controversial piece exercised theirs. Pretty simple stuff.

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