Last week, this publication printed a paid political advertisement that had been provided by the Broward County chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans. The half page black and white ad depicted the late U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, as his body was carried out of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which he had died moments earlier. The national coverage on the advertisement has, correctly, focused almost entirely on the Broward LCR’s actions, and the consequences it is likely to face from its national chartering organization.
Since I had no involvement in the ad’s creation, or participation in deciding whether the ad ran, I do not want to put words into the mouths (by way of explaining what they were thinking) of either the Broward LCR chapter or of their national organization. Speaking for the latter, the Log Cabin Republicans’ national executive director, R. Clarke Cooper, has already responded in eloquent language about his organization’s outrage (see this issue’s Florida Agenda “POLITICAL DESK,” Page 11) concerning the depiction of a fallen American diplomat who died in the service of his country (regardless of the specific details of that death, both of which remain matters of national sensitivity and security), and of the use of that image to garner cheap, fear- and hate-inspired political support.
Nor will I impart my own personal feelings concerning the use of Ambassador Stevens’ portrayal in such straits, or of how such a portrayal distresses men and women of goodwill, gay and straight, Muslim and Christian, Jew and atheist, and gives aid and comfort to all enemies of decency and goodness. That sentiment must be one which is expressed individually, and I will not engage in the same tactics as did the members of the Broward LCRs who were responsible for the ad, in the interest of assuaging my own moral outrage. That would be irresponsible of me as a journalist, a keeper of our most sacred secular commandment, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
By now, I have heard from members of the press—gay and straight, legitimate and tabloid—concerning the righteous anger and disdain that has been directed both at the Broward Log Cabin Republicans and the ad’s grotesque depiction of a fallen American who died of unnatural causes. There has likewise been concern about the decision to run the ad, in light of reports that it was declined in other publications.
I cannot speak to the reasoning behind those publications’ decision not to run the ad, other than to accept at face value their own explanations, and try to give you a window into our reasoning, one which informs our commitment to serving as a community-wide instrument to disseminate information and opinions—not all of them popular, and in this extreme case, one which tries the very fabric and tolerance of that very relevant concept, free speech and open-access to a community journal.
As I told the very capable national LGBT journalist Bil Browning of the Bilerico Project, the balance between censorship and sensitivity has more far reaching implications for the press than it does for a person sitting in your own living room. Was the Agenda free to censor a message we found repugnant? I can think of no legal constraint preventing it. But in advertising ourselves as a community publication, we have an obligation to serve the entire community.
When a lobbyist provides financial incentives to a lawmaker, he is legally buying access under a system that is as old as our Republic. That same access is afforded to both pro-life and anti-gun groups alike. It is a part of an open dialog that is likewise as old as our Republic—as is the suppression of free speech during times of national distress, which in our nation dates from the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 18th Century to the Patriot Act of the 21st.
As a journalist, my first responsibility must always be to err on the side of free speech and expression, so long as it doesn’t contradict the law.
Along with the Bill of Rights, I would offer an older, more fundamental imperative that was in play here: the Golden Rule, which demands that the same treatment be afforded the “good” among us as the “bad.” This was the point behind the admonishment, “I’d give the Devil [the] benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake,” in the 1960 play “A Man for All Seasons.”
In 1822, Denmark Vesey led one of the largest slave rebellions in pre- Civil War America. Vesey, a freed slave, purchased his own freedom sometime around 1800. He was a leader of a black church which preached the abolition of slavery in very white, very anti-abolition Charleston, S.C. Twice—and with the collusion of the authorities—white property owners shut down Vesey’s African Church, a provocation that would lead to the uprising of several thousand African-American slaves and freedmen.
Although the owners of the African Church property could have chosen to allow Vesey’s congregation to stay open, they instead decided to ignore the members’ First Amendment rights to assembly and to practice their beliefs.
Of course, as private landowners they were not actually constrained by the Bill of Rights—those Constitutional prohibitions are directed specifically at Congress—and so they were under no obligation to honor its language. But they apparently felt no obligation either to honor the Golden Rule, of doing unto others as one would have done unto them.
Doesn’t a community journal have an ethical obligation to provide a balance, offering ad space (and editorial column inches) for all political sides in a presidential election year? Would censorship have been the “high road?” I cannot in good conscience say that it would have been.
I know that others will debate on where a line of decency or good taste, not to mention humanity, should be drawn, and I hope to take part in that discussion. I know that I would hope that the LCRs will use a more sensitive measuring stick when they next try to influence the social message, since I think this time around they clearly went far afield. I think a long-term good will be served by that, in every sense.
The question of which good is best served by what deed puts me in mind of John Adams, who was in 1770 the lawyer selected to defend the British soldiers who took part in the Boston Massacre. Although even then a leading Patriot in the cause of American liberty, and a firm believer that the citizens of Boston had every reason to “call the action of that night a massacre,” Adams—later our country’s second president—held that not providing the British soldiers full access to the best defense “would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the Quakers or witches, anciently.”
Then as now, some things remain more indefensible than others.