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Public Editor: The digital conundrum — discerning the boundaries of free speech

What speech should or should not be allowed?
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Free speech has been a contested topic for a long time both at The Varsity and around the world. Today, social media platforms such as Twitter ban world leaders from using their services, the Indian government actively sought to block Twitter accounts for “fomenting hatred and inciting violence,” and following the Myanmar coup, Facebook — “the country’s primary source of information” — was blocked due to growing instability in the country. 

The challenge of deciding what ideas should and should not be given oxygen is not foreign to the practice of journalism. However, the emergence of digital journalism has given birth to new sets of ethical challenges surrounding free speech that require nuanced answers. Such answers provide the necessary context to make an informed judgement and acknowledge the complex nature of the issue at stake while carefully exercising conscience. 

At The Varsity, answers to difficult scenarios that, for instance, concern publishing or declining a pitch are informed by the Equity Guide and The Varsity’s Operating Policy. The Equity Guide is an extensive document comprising the detailed equity-related editorial and stylistic guidelines that our journalists and editors follow. Last month, I received a complaint from a contributor regarding the free speech section of the guide, upon having two of their pitches declined.

The first pitch delineated their arguments against the non-physical connotations that are now being attached to the notion of safety. They intended to argue “that ‘safety’ must only be considered in a physical sense (i.e. kinetic threats to one’s person and property)” and that no form of speech can be deemed unsafe simply because of the ideas it conveys. The second pitch sought to debate the free speech section, which the first pitch was judged to be in violation of.

The contributor felt that The Varsity did not protect section eight of its governing policies “by preventing participation based on ‘political and philosophical beliefs,’ ” and that the publication “has a clear ideological bias – which it imputes into policies such as the Equity Guide and denies dissenting voices the ability to engage with such biases on an equal footing.” The editor’s decisions for both pitches were made “in accordance with the guide” and after careful consultation with the editor-in-chief.

I contacted Ibnul Chowdhury, Editor-in-Chief of The Varsity, regarding this issue, and he explained that should any pitch conflict with the guide, The Varsity is not obligated to provide a platform for views that can cause harm to readers. 

Regarding the contributor’s second pitch, which sought to debate the guide’s free speech section in a letter to the editor, Chowdhury expressed, “Our letters are a place for discussion about articles and content but not about policy and practices.” He added, “If we published a letter denying equity or saying something like ‘racism doesn’t exist’ — which is obviously not only not true but it can cause harm to readers and undermine our reputation.” 

Understanding the two parties on their own terms is fairly clear — it is well within the rights of the contributor to freely express their ideas and contest policies. Likewise, the editor has the right to decline a pitch at their discretion based on their “responsibility to produce responsible and non-harmful journalism for the U of T community.” However, the issue here is that there are conflicting interests, and finding the point of intersection at which they coincide is rather intricate.

Here lies the digital conundrum: what speech should or should not be allowed? This is a subjective decision to be made by the editors. Are we doing a good job? Yes and no. The Varsity has strived to make a collaborative effort to practice ethical and democratic journalism, alongside its readers and contributors. It has welcomed critical and healthy debate in the letters to the editor forum, where readers can respond to articles published by The Varsity. 

However, how well it discerns the boundaries of free speech remains a disputed subject, as detailed in previous public editor columns. What I mean by the digital conundrum is that the advent of digital journalism has encouraged the spread of unfettered speech. Some of this speech is misleading, hateful, and unwelcoming, thus tightening the practice of ethical journalism around free speech.

In a conversation with Jeffrey Dvorkin, the former ombudsman of National Public Radio and program director of journalism at UTSC, I shared my concerns about the limits of free speech. “I think the editor is right to make a choice and to say this doesn’t suit us. On the other hand, if at the university these ideas have no place for discussion, does that mean that ideas that may make people feel uncomfortable are now forbidden to be discussed?” asked Dvorkin. 

The answers are not black and white, and these challenges call for better collaboration between our contributors and editors, who should push the boundaries of discussing a potential pitch a little further before completely declining it. 

Dvorkin added, “The role of a newspaper or any medium is to give people the skills and occasionally the sharper logics to help them deal with all this craziness that’s out there.” Sooner or later, we will all have to face the challenges of the real world, and as a campus newspaper, the onus is on us to have these difficult conversations and equip ourselves with the skills that will help us make sense of challenging ideas.

That being said, this is no easy task. It needs to be thoughtfully carried out such that the public interest is served while maintaining fairness and abiding by the principles of ethical journalism. The Equity Guide is not up for public debate as it puts The Varsity’s reputation and credibility at stake. Instead, readers and contributors are encouraged to submit their responses in the feedback form, which is meticulously monitored in order to revise the guide every academic year.

As your new public editor, I strive to bridge the gap between the readers and the newsroom. I warmly invite you to share any of your thoughts and concerns about The Varsity. If you have questions or concerns regarding the Equity Guide, or simply want to have a conversation about journalism, please reach out to me via email. I’d be more than happy to help!

Padmaja Rengamannar is Public Editor at The Varsity and can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s note (February 26): This article has been updated to clarify the editor-in-chief’s definition of The Varsity‘s letters to the editor section.