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Why Cultural Sensitivity Should Never Trump Free Speech

01/08/2015 12:38 EST | Updated 03/10/2015 05:59 EDT
MATTHIEU ALEXANDRE via Getty Images
A man holds a pencil in the air as he stands in front of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris to observe a minute of silence on January 8, 2015 for the victims of an attack by armed gunmen on the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7 which left at least 12 dead and many others injured. France observed a minute of silence Thursday, broken only by church bells, in honour of the 12 people killed by apparent jihadists at a magazine known for publishing cartoons deemed offensive to Islam. At midday (1100 GMT), crowds of people stood silently in public squares, schools and outside official buildings. Bells tolled at Paris' Notre Dame cathedral and in churches across the country. AFP PHOTO / MATTHIEU ALEXANDRE (Photo credit should read MATTHIEU ALEXANDRE/AFP/Getty Images)

As a journalist, I have been trying to figure out what to say about the attacks in Paris Wednesday.

And it struck me that many of us in the press have had debates, incidents and events in our careers that govern our views of what it means to have a free press.

Sixteen years ago, I was editor in chief of my student newspaper, The Eyeopener, at Ryerson University. We ran a picture that inflamed the Hindu community and it taught me a lot of lessons but firmed my view of why I and my colleagues fight for a free press.

I wrote an opinion piece about it, and to this day, it reminds me how dear the concepts of freedom of the press is to me, even against the pressures of self-censorship.

What I learned the day a dozen students walked into my newspaper office is applicable today as it was 16 years ago -- about how this society should protect free speech while growing as a multicultural one too.

It's published below in its entirety.

About a dozen or so students walked into my office the other day demanding that The Eyeopener apologize for a picture we ran two weeks ago. In doing so, they touched off a dilemma that we could not ignore.

The picture we ran was one of a Hindu god carrying Pepsi cans, with a Pepsi logo in the background. When we received complaints after it was published [see below], we decided to run a letter to the editor accompanied with a clarification. The picture, we said, was not intended "to hurt anyone's feelings or disparage anything sacred." But the clarification was not good enough for the students who came into my office. They said we were beating around the bush. One said if we didn't do anything about it, they would.

They are right. In this circumstance, I think we should apologize. So why am I writing this column?

Because I understand the nature of cultural and religious sensitivity. Because I believe in debate and free speech. And because what happened this past week put the two ideas -- free speech and religious sensitivity -- at polar opposites. I had realized that after we printed the clarification that the staff at The Eyeopener probably didn't fully understand the implications of our statement. We were accused of ignorance.

We set out to learn. We talked to a Hindu expert, a journalism professor, a campus groups coordinator. And each of our staff -- 13 of us -- talked to our families, peers and colleagues for input.

I spoke one-on-one with two Hindu students who wrote letters. One said that he was more liberal and understood our point of view, but wanted an apology. The other was more fearful of the consequences if we didn't own up.

One said that he wanted a straight apology. I told him that I would recommend to my editorial board that we do so and that, regardless, I would write a column explaining what was happening.

He maintained that an apology would make the group he was representing happy; that a column explaining our reasoning might be seen as us avoiding the issue. But for the sake of freedom of speech and editorial independence, I must.

I must because I believe intimidation -- either in the form of a dozen students marching into a newspaper office, or statements that I perceive to be threats -- is never a solution in a democratic institution or a country. Would you like your newspaper to be dictated to? We wouldn't.

As a medium for debate, our newspaper constantly pushes and tests the limits. Lines of acceptability are drawn, crossed and redrawn. We accept the responsibility that comes with editorial independence. But we don't accept self-censorship, or that we have to consult dozens of groups before we publish an article, a picture or a column.

With situations like this, we learn, and we change. But we continue to assert our independence.

Debate can clear misunderstandings. In our recent case, the Hindu students who complained can understand our very real concern with independence while we can understand their concerns with religion. And you, the average reader, who may not be Hindu, can understand what all the fuss is about -- that The Eyeopener is not a cold and distant publication, made up of snobs who laugh off complaints. Or that the Hindu students are not radicals, but people who were genuinely hurt by something we printed.

It is for that reason I told the student that I must explain. I told the student that our actions will be decided in good faith and with reasoned debate. And that any reaction on their part would be a measure of themselves as much as our actions are a measure of us.

Courtesy of The Eyeopener.

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