Censorship hinders opportunities for open dialogue


Commentary


Targum: We need to talk about you.

Last week, your Board of Trustees installed a system of prior restraint. It did so during a moment of controversy, when the virtues of the free press are at their most necessary and their most vulnerable. Any student in Media Ethics and Law could tell you how insane that is. Apparently, none of them have — so I will.

But first, a story.

On Jan. 23, the Daily Targum published a letter by one Colleen Jolly, University senior and casual anti-Semite. It took aim at Rutgers Hillel by way of some low-down Jewish pejoratives. The community responded in short order via the same platform, proving exactly why a newspaper has an Opinions section in the first place — for every abhorrent view, there’s likely to be five commendable ones ready to meet it in kind. This is the norm, not the outlier. It is the process by which we divine our community standards and reach our own conclusions.

There’s some kind of elegant, yin-yang style philosophy at play here about needing to consume the offensive view in order to appreciate the worthy. Up until a week ago, it seemed like the Targum understood that mechanic.

Then, in a flash, everything changed. Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel, penned a letter to the Targum demanding a new system of sensitivity training to be developed and implemented by his own staff.

The trustees caved. They responded by promising to allow the usurpation of the duties of the editorial board — the only group who ought to have a seat at the table when it comes to a newspaper’s content — and weed out any opinions that might run afoul of the most ardent pro-Israel voices on campus. This move sets a self-neutering precedent that destroys the content-neutral editorial standard established as best practice in the rest of the journalism world.

It’s tough to talk about diminishing rights without devolving into a tired slippery-slope diatribe, an alarmist premonition about what could, might, just maybe happen in the next week or month or year. But remember: This isn’t a warning. This has already happened. This is a done deal.

My alma mater now occupies an age of simulacra, the Baudrillardian third stage where nothing means what it says it means, and no one expects any better. Your newspaper is no longer your newspaper. It can lay no sort of legitimate claim to its own legacy. Sure, it still has an Opinions section. But it’s a shell of what it should be, corrupted by a regime of censorship, promised to a barnstorming crusader.

I suppose one ought not to expect better from an interest group. Hillel outwardly welcomes disagreement as an opportunity to teach and learn in equal measure, but then pursues a thickheaded campaign to label any actual dissent, no matter how reasoned or intellectual, as somehow beyond the pale. The result is a simple, prohibitive binary: agree with us, without caveat, or you’re a bully.

Enforcing that kind of false dichotomy is always intellectually irresponsible. For someone like Getraer, who makes his bones in the realm of academia, surrounded by impressionable young minds, it’s even worse. It’s insidious. For the leadership of a university newspaper, whose raison d’être is the incubation of journalism’s better angels, it becomes pernicious and craven.

The Targum board promised Hillel that it will submit all future opinion pieces to a new and unprecedented system of review that will necessarily parse all viewpoints through a reactionary, fear-bound lens. This is the definition of a chilling effect on free speech. Getraer has successfully managed to draw an unyielding equivalency between one inflammatory opinion and every word of legitimate criticism that would ever find its way to print. And he has battered the Targum into enforcing it for him.

One wonders how the February version of Getraer can coexist in the same physical plane as the January version. Just last month, Getraer found himself defending free speech while condemning the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel. I don’t like academic boycotts, either. They prohibit the kind of productive exchanges that I’ve spent the last dozen paragraphs defending. Getraer and Hillel were all too happy to join the ranks of the free speech advocates when it came to that issue — just weeks before compelling a student newspaper to defy its own mission statement.

To paraphrase doge, wow.

Students — demand that the Targum’s board of trustees reaffirm its commitment to journalistic integrity. You deserve as much.

 

Alex Lewis is a Class of 2012 alumnus and former Daily Targum columnist.

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