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Journalists exposed to offensive ideas

The First Amendment is the foundation of American journalism. It’s no coincidence that public ignorance of the importance of this amendment — what is it and what it protects — is increasing at the same time as attacks against journalism.

As the nation’s foremost institutions of higher learning, America’s public universities and colleges should be at the forefront of teaching their students about the irreplaceable role of free speech in the functioning of our country. Schools of journalism should be leading the charge.

The School of Journalism at the University of Montana fell short of its responsibilities recently when it declined to host a controversial opinion columnist to deliver the next Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture in 2018. It was a missed opportunity to practice, not merely parrot, the principle tenets of journalism.

Journalism School Dean Larry Abramson explained that his decision was based on the fact that the invited lecturer, Mike Adams, does not have a background in journalism and has made offensive comments on a frequent basis.

True, Adams isn’t a journalist, but he clearly has something to teach journalism students about the importance of free speech.

Some of his columns and statements are indeed offensive, and likely to provoke strong reactions. Indeed, he was the subject of an unsuccessful petition to terminate his employment as a professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, a petition based on inflammatory comments regarding a gay Muslim student. Adams has also made favorite targets of LGBT people, as well as liberals and feminists, in his columns.

Adams teaches sociology and criminology at UNC-W and writes columns for the conservative-leaning, but of most importance to journalism students is the First Amendment battle he won in 2014. He successfully argued that he exceeded the requirements for promotion but was denied based on the free expression of his personal views.

This winning argument was what convinced Maria Cole, whose late husband was the Wall Street Journal reporter and Journalism School graduate Jeff Cole, to choose Adams to deliver the 10th annual Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture. Maria Cole has been a financial supporter for the Journalism School for many years, and the annual lecture is free and open to the public. Earlier this year, it brought aviation reporter Susan Carey of the Wall Street Journal to campus.

The next lecture is scheduled for Feb. 13, 2018, but with the UM School of Journalism’s support, Cole is searching for a new venue. She has already entered into a contract with Adams.

Presumably, it is not too late for Dean Abramson to change his mind and extend an invitation on behalf of the Journalism School, providing a future class of journalists the chance to hear, discuss and challenge Adams’ perspectives. It would doubtless prove a rich experience and good learning opportunity.

These kinds of opportunities are needed now more than ever, with polls showing support for First Amendment rights slipping among the public. The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania published the results of a recent survey that showed only about half of respondents could even name freedom of speech among the five rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Another 37 percent couldn’t name even one First Amendment right.

Perhaps this attitude is also why a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center concluded that 40 percent of millennials agree that the government should stop people from making comments that may be construed as “offensive to minority groups.”

Meanwhile, an online survey of 1,500 undergraduates by a Brookings senior fellow found that 44 percent of respondents think “hate speech” is not protected by the First Amendment. More than 60 percent think that on-campus groups are legally required to provide speakers with opposing viewpoints. And 19 percent think it’s OK to use violence to protest certain speakers.

The University of Montana has welcomed controversial speakers in the past and hopefully will continue to do so. Ideally, Abramson’s concerns with Cole’s selection of Adams would have led to a constructive discussion about what sort of journalism background would be ideal for future lecturers, and how best to respond when such speakers provoke a strong reaction among the student body.

Such a response should always include support for more free speech. The best way to fight bad ideas is with good ideas. The best way to overcome bad information is to share good information. And the best way to win back public trust in journalism is to seize every opportunity to earn that trust.

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