The media frenzy over Kobe Bryant’s death

Note: An edited version of this blog item appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Feb. 3, 2020.

The controversy over the suspension and rapid reinstatement of a Washington Post reporter after a social media firestorm over coverage of Kobe Bryant’s death illustrates all too well where we are in the passion and often bad decision making of the digital age. In the hours after the initial report that the NBA legend had died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles, reporter Felicia Sonmez sent a tweet with a link to a story on a years-old sexual assault allegation. 

There is a fundamental journalistic issue that has vexed obituary writers for generations. When a person dies, the general rule is to speak kindly and with reverence. Yet, many who die have bad things in their past. 

Bryant in 2003 was accused of sexual assault of a 19-year-old hotel employee in Edwards, Colo., not far from the celebrated ski areas of Vail and Beaver Creek.  The criminal charges eventually were dropped. A civil lawsuit resulted in an undisclosed settlement. Bryant maintained that the sex was consensual. It should be noted that Bryant in 2001 had married Vanessa Lane, the mother of his four children. One of the daughters, Gianna, 13, also died in the crash, as did seven others.

The tweet by Sonmez linked to a Daily Beast story published in 2016, “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.” In an email sent to her and later released by Sonmez, executive editor Marty Baron said: “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.” 

Perhaps reacting to the thousands of negative and often threating tweets and other social media comments, the paper placed Sonmez on administrative leave. Members of the paper’s Newspaper Guild protested the decision, saying that she should have been offered protection in light of the threats she received. The Washington Post isn’t the first mainstream news organization to cope with ethical complexities of social media, and it won’t be the last. The paper has made the right decision in reinstating Sonmez.

The day after the suspension, I posed the question to a class of 90 undergraduate students in my Media Ethics course at SMU in Dallas. A number of students spoke up. The consensus seemed to be that the reporter shouldn’t have sent out the tweet. There was clear sensitivity to the emotion of the moment when a beloved athlete with global standing was lost in a tragedy. And yet, there was clear sentiment that the suspension of the reporter was overreaction. I agree with the students on both counts. Any discussion of the sexual assault allegation would have been better handled with time and thoughtful consideration of the full picture of Bryant’s life. Unfortunately, the digital age doesn’t allow for that.

So much of what happens now is a digital moment. Social media and the immediacy of the Internet seem to dictate action and reaction with little thought. Good, solid reporting that is factual and sensitive gets overwhelmed in the news cycle. The mistakes and the controversies linger. There were factual mistakes made by mainstream media as well as social media. We’ve gotten accustomed to those mistakes since the world of Twitter became a prime news source. And the website TMZ announced quickly, before any family could be notified, that Kobe Bryant was dead. TMZ has never played by the norms of traditional media. 

The Newspaper Guild statement protesting the suspension noted that it is the responsibility of journalists to publish the whole picture of individuals and institutions, including that of a negative nature. And that’s certainly true. Yet social media seems only to encourage and exacerbate overreaction. Negativity reigns in making the snap judgments. Threats, insults and harsh conclusions have become the standards in communication, especially in the aftermath of major news stories.

Mainstream news media, print and broadcast, have for some years encouraged reporters and editors to engage in social media. Social media is used to link to stories that can build audience and help alleviate the economic cataclysm that has struck most traditional news organizations, especially newspapers. That miscues and even disastrous communications occur when responsible journalists are encouraged to make snap communications over social media should be no surprise. 

We have now had the 24-hour news cycle wrought by cable news for more than a generation. The idea that news was never complete and got on the air immediately with little or no vetting became the standard. Not only did reporting and journalism change, our very perception of the news changed. 

The same dramatic change is now taking place with social media and digital technology. The standards and ethics of the past no longer mean anything. News and reaction are even more instantaneous and less vetted than cable news. We interpret major news events through the brief sentences that often have truncated spellings, millennial-style initialisms and emojis, and horrible grammar.  Whatever we may think of these changes, they are here to stay. 

The sad state of media and Congress

The following op-ed was published in on Sept. 30, 2019.

Just as the 2020 presidential election has begun with Democratic candidate debates and the nation more polarized than ever, we add to the mix the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Just when we need excellent journalism the most, the nation’s news media are more incapable of informing and enlightening the public than at any time in modern history. It is a sad and in many respects tragic time for the nation’s news media, marginalized by the economics of the digital age as well as by government, politics, and even the biases of the American people.

The economic calamity that has befallen news media, especially newspapers, has been well documented. The Pew Research Center reports that, in 2008, there were 114,000 journalists working in U.S. newsrooms including print, broadcast, and digital. In 2018, that number was 86,000, a decline of 25 percent. That change was particularly harsh for newspapers, with the number of newsroom employees declining to 38,000 from 71,000, a decline of 47 percent. Once-great metro newspapers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Denver, Dallas, and Atlanta have experienced dramatic decreases in circulation and news staffs. And frequently when news media have been forced to lay off employees, older and more experienced journalists are the ones out the door. Younger, less experienced and cheaper journalists fill the gaps. 

In generations past, we had feisty secondary newspapers in major markets. Today, most are closed. In the few markets where secondary newspapers exist, they are just hanging on with barebones news staffs. 

The University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism reported last year that almost 1,800 newspapers — 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies — have closed in the last 14 years. Many of the closures occurred in small towns and rural areas creating what university researchers call  “news deserts,” areas where people had no access to information about local and civic news.

Local television news has become more trivialized as viewership continues to decline. Network morning news programs are more devoted to breezy and brief news coverage with more emphasis on celebrity news and promotion of the prime-time lineup, especially programs such as “The Bachelorette” and “Love Island.” 

The political damage that has been done to news media can’t be underestimated. President Trump has consistent applause lines in referring to journalists as “enemies of the people” and noting “fake news.” Both Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton made changes to the First Amendment part of their campaigns in 2016. Trump proposed making it easier for public figures to sue media for damages, presumably eliminating the historic protections in the landmark Supreme Court decision in Times v. Sullivan in 1964. Clinton bought into the notion of changes that might overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. Neither proposal had any chance of becoming reality, of course, but playing to the political base is now more important than discussions of substantive issues. The fact that major political candidates and the dominant political parties are even discussing First Amendment changes shows how little regard exists for the protections and rights considered a foundation of our liberty. Not to mention a lack of respect for the role of the press as a check on government.

But the threats to the free flow of information and access to government didn’t begin in 2016. We shouldn’t forget that the Justice Department under Eric Holder in the Obama administration seized telephone records of the Associated Press in a leak investigation in 2013. It apparently escaped administration notice that the action violated agreements protecting journalists published by the Justice Department in the 1970s.

Even earlier, the USA Patriot Act, passed within weeks of the terrorist attacks in 2001, closed off thousands of documents that had customarily been accessible, including many online. The act also provided government with a major loophole for “national security” that made it acceptable for government agencies to deny open records requests. Many state legislatures followed suit in creating new exemptions for security. 

All of us appreciate government actions to keep us safe. But many journalists and First Amendment advocates found that the federal Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, became virtually useless. The Associated Press reported that the Obama administration set records for refusals to the media and the public for information and also set records in tax money spent defending lawsuits over the refusals.

The track record for the Trump administration is no better and, in many cases, worse. Trump has even broken with tradition in refusing to release his tax returns. Transparency in the Trump White House seems more or less limited to opinions expressed on Twitter. 

Overall trust in the nation’s news media remains low, according to recent Gallup polling that  has tracked the confidence level since 1972. Only 41 percent of people surveyed have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in news media to report events fairly and accurately. When political views are considered, the data are even more troubling. Among Democrats, 69 percent have confidence in the news media; among Republicans, only 15 percent have confidence. 

The “echo chamber” effect of news consumption has also been made clear in polling by various organizations. Conservatives have their news sources, and liberals have theirs. Watching the same story on Fox News and CNN is often like watching news from two different planets. We seem to want only news that confirms what we believe.

Congress fares even worse than the news media in polling of confidence levels. As the impeachment process focuses on the House, Americans are sure to have even more sharply divided opinions about government and the news media. The charges that President Trump asked a foreign government to investigate a political opponent are serious and deserve serious consideration from the Congress and serious, factual reporting from the nation’s news media. Don’t count on the public having much confidence in either. 

Tiger and the Masters

Accolades and comparisons with history have been flowing since Tigers Woods’ one-stroke victory yesterday in the Masters, his 15th major. There had been 22 years pass since his first Masters win in 1997, 14 years since his last Masters win in 2005, and almost 11 years since his last win in a major, the U.S. Open in 2008. I had predicted in this blog a couple of years ago that Tiger was finished as a major title contender. A failed marriage, publicity over multiple affairs, and health issues resulting in major back and knee surgeries all had made such prospects dim. This is not, to me, comparable to Joe Namath and the New York Jets winning Super Bowl III over the Baltimore Colts in 1969. Joe Namath was a personal hero, and the fact that he predicted a win while his team was such an underdog ranks very high in my sports history catalog. Nor did Tiger’s win have the global impact and national catharsis of the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid. I have never witnessed such collective emotion in sports as seen after that event.

Tiger Woods sinks a short putt to claim his 15th major golf championship.

As to my prediction two years ago, I hereby eat my words. And I apologize to the greatest golfer of his era. I have followed sports and especially golf since I was eight years old in 1958. Tiger’s win yesterday is the most extraordinary individual comeback I’ve ever witnessed. We all like comebacks, and this is one for the ages. At the age of 43, after all his personal turmoil and health issues, he won against a generation of players he helped inspire who are stronger and every bit as capable as he ever was. Tiger is no longer the longest off the tee. There have always been better drivers of the golf ball, better short iron players, even better putters. But no one ever put all of the elements of golf together better than did Tiger in his glory years. Nor has any other golfer had such a flair for the dramatic, pulling off incredible shots at exactly the right time.

When he first came onto the tour in the 1990s, swing analysts noted the likelihood of injury with the aggressive and even violent movement he made over the golf ball. He had extraordinary hip rotation, creating club head speed and making him always at or near the top in tour driving distance. The swing took a toll on his lower back and left knee, which absorbed the pressure of the movement. Sure enough, a rebuilt left knee and multiple back surgeries followed. His swing is a bit more controlled than it was in the past, although he still seems to hit shots wide to the right. Whether the back and the knee continue to hold up is anyone’s guess, as is whether or not Tiger can approach the record of Jack Nicklaus with 18 major titles.

This week is a time to celebrate what sport has always meant when sport is at its best. It’s a drive to succeed against the longest of odds, the ability to overcome obstacles, and to demonstrate the fierce will to win that all champions have. I saw very little in the way of social media that was against Tiger. Clearly, some people maintain a bit of a grudge against him for his actions, and clearly some of his problems were his own doing. But golf creates the crucible for individual pressure, grace, and intensity that no other sport offers. It is an individual sport, and what happens is entirely of a player’s own doing. Yesterday, we saw the brilliant Italian Francesco Molinari fail when he hit shots into the water on the famous 12th hole and then again on the 15th at Augusta, ending with double bogeys on both. It was painful to watch, but then we were reminded again what grace is when Molinari patiently answered questions after his loss. “Sometimes it’s your day,” he said. “Sometimes it isn’t.”

The legendary golf writer for The New Yorker, Herbert Warren Wind, perhaps said it best: “Beyond the fact that it is a limitless arena for the full play of human nature, there is no sure accounting for golf’s fascination. Perhaps it is nothing more than the best game man has ever devised.”

SMU Student Media Inc. to dissolve

The following column was published earlier today on

Student and alumni reaction has been strong and emotional regarding the closing of Student Media Company Inc. at Southern Methodist University. Formed almost 90 years ago, the independent company publishes the SMU Campus Weekly (formerly The Daily Campus) student newspaper and the Rotunda yearbook. Declining ad revenue is forcing the change. The concerns have centered on loss of independence and the possibility that free speech by students will be lost and that censorship by the SMU administration could be a factor in future publications.

The print newspaper will cease to exist with its last edition next month. The online version of the paper,, will continue under the supervision of the Division of Journalism. The future of the Rotunda is uncertain.

I am pleased by the reaction from students and alumni. It means that in our journalism classes, we have taught them the value of the First Amendment and the dangers of limiting press freedom. The historical lesson, from every part of the world, is that democracy suffers when freedom of expression is restricted.

I hope, too, that our students have learned the history of SMU, and some of the tradition of its Wesleyan founding. There is a seminal story frequently told by the late SMU Professor Emeritus Marshall Terry. It concerned an incident in the 1950s when Cold War tensions were running high and the fear of communism was palpable. Willis Tate was president of SMU, and unbeknownst to him, a student group had invited John Gates, an avowed Communist and former editor of the Daily Worker, to speak.  Tate only found out about the invitation by reading the SMU Daily Campus, and he was not pleased.

In his history of SMU titled From High on the Hilltop, Terry put it this way: “These were Joe McCarthy times and, in Dallas, John Birch times of ultraconservatism when SMU already seemed scary pinko to many.”  The “pinko” reference had been directed personally at President Tate by a columnist in The Dallas Morning News, and Tate had already been heavily criticized by the Ku Klux Klan for permitting the integration of SMU.  Once word circulated about Gates, civic groups were quick to criticize the event.  Even the SMU Mothers Club expressed opposition to the Gates appearance.

Tate withstood the firestorm. Gates spoke on campus. In recalling the incident years later, Tate said he believed it essential for a university to serve as a marketplace of ideas.  Tate is remembered for his firm commitment to academic freedom as well as free speech. Today the Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series is one of SMU’s signature events.

Just in the last year, questions have been raised about speakers, some conservative, on the SMU campus. Yet speeches have been made, and the discourse has been civil. was first to report about the controversy to move an annual 9/11 display from in front of Dallas Hall. There was miscommunication involved, but it was a bad move and everyone knew it. President R. Gerald Turner apologized in a letter to the SMU community.

Economic realities have, sadly, affected virtually every news media organization in the United States. Student media operations at many universities have been forced to change. Every member of our journalism faculty at one point worked in professional news media. We are disheartened by the changes but committed to preserving freedom of the press in every facet of the classroom and newsroom.

I personally have spent the last 40 years working for press freedom issues in Latin America. While president of the Inter American Press Association in 2000, I led a press freedom forum in Bogotá, Colombia. The civil war and narcotrafficking at the time were taking the lives of dozens of journalists every year. I’ll never forget a question posed by a young newspaper reporter at the forum. “What kind of a choice is it,” he asked, “when you have to choose between a story you know is important and your life?”

The choices we are making on press freedom in the United States, and on every college campus, are fortunately not life threatening. But they are no less profound.


The Oscars go swimming, and drown

The Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night was excruciating. I love movies, and I fear the Oscars are only serving to further alienate the film industry from the American public. I realize I’m starting to sound like a commentator on Fox News, and that really isn’t my intent. But for Pete’s sake. They get a script about a woman falling for a fish, make a movie out of it, and it wins the Oscar for Best Picture. I sent out a tweet a few months back after I saw The Shape of Water. I think I said something like it was beyond me, and maybe I wasn’t smart enough to get it. Of course we all get it. It’s about inclusion, acceptance, being warm and fuzzy in the Era of Trump. (Everything’s targeted to the Era of Trump these days.) It was so transparent, in fact, it’s banal. Inclusion and acceptance are hardly new themes for film. It’s been done many times before, and better.

The ratings for the show continue to plummet faster than those for the National Football League. This year’s ratings were 20 percent below the show of 2017 and the worst ever for the ceremony. The show itself is widely panned, the monologues aren’t funny, the entertainment quality of the show is marginal at best, and, oh yes, the show is way too long and way too filled with Hollywood types trying to affirm their own self-importance. And how many breathless, worthless red-carpet interviews do we really need to sit through? A bunch of films to which the public had little commercial response are awarded, and the people in Hollywood continue on their parallel universe.

There were a few tidbits of justice mixed in with the nonsense. Frances McDormand won Best Actress and Sam Rockwell Best Supporting Actor for superb performances in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. For my money, Three Billboards was the best film of the year. Gary Oldman won Best Actor for a masterful portrayal of Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour, a film that seemed to lack any real punch. And who can argue with James Ivory’s Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Call Me By Your Name? Aaron Sorkin was also nominated in the adapted screenplay category for Molly’s Game, an entertaining and well-paced film in which Jessica Chastain gave an excellent performance as a leading actress that the Oscars somehow didn’t notice.  Also largely overlooked was The Greatest Showman, a lively film loved by the public and that was a huge commercial success. But it was too simple and straightforward for critics and the Academy. The Greatest Showman received one Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, and lost.

I noted earlier that inclusion and acceptance have been done in films many times before. I could name a number of films, but for reference see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, released in 1967 and that earned a Best Actress Oscar for Katharine Hepburn. The film also starred Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy in his last movie. Tracy died just days after filming ended. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is recognized by the American Film Institute in its 100 Years…100 Movies list. The movie also contributed significantly to an ongoing and badly needed discussion of race in America. Maybe I’ve just missed it, but I haven’t detected much of an ongoing discussion or even a need to discuss relationships with fish.


Trump and his language

The news today is full of accounts of a White House meeting yesterday on immigration. Trump, apparently after becoming agitated, made strong comments about some nations, including Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries.  Early news accounts said he referred to the nations as “shithole countries.” In a follow-up story today in The Washington Post, Trump seemed to deny the use of the profane term.  My very proper Methodist mother, were she alive, would say that she would like to wash the president’s mouth out with a bar of soap. Democrats and some Republicans are understandably outraged by the remark, if it were made. Rights groups have also condemned such comments. The pattern of Trump’s harsh language and insulting references to people, including some world leaders, unfortunately continues.

Democrats have been floating for months the idea that Trump is unstable, possibly suffering early Alzheimer’s, and in any case is unfit to be president. Their fantasy involves some scenario, impeachment or possibly the people in the White House uniting in the effort, where Trump would be removed from office. Any such scenario seems a remote possibility, at best. The Trump presidency continues to be erratic and at times irrational, despite regrouping at the end of 2017 to pass a major rewrite of the tax code. Democrats are fearful that the tax cuts will turn out to be popular with the public, which they probably will.

Nonetheless, Trump damages his presidency and his own standing by the crudeness of his language. Several months ago, his rant against NFL players who won’t stand for the National Anthem is such an example. His desire to “get that son of a bitch off the field” is just not necessary. And this was well after the release of audio recorded before his campaign in which he referenced grabbing a certain women’s body part. Now, I try not to be a prude about language. The level of profanity used by both young men and women frequently strikes me as vulgar, disrespectful and unnecessary. Trump is not only setting a bad example, but he plays into the hands of opponents who believe he has brought a mean-spiritedness to the White House. Whether mean spirited or not, Trump displays a rude and crude nature that is unbecoming of a president.

A salute to women in newspapers

Vivian Castleberry, who was in the vanguard of women in newspaper journalism.

Today we mourn the passing of the legendary Dallas journalist Vivian Castleberry. She was 95. The Dallas Morning News marked her death with a beautifully written story on her career.  The piece noted but some of the skepticism, sexism and discrimination she experienced when beginning in the newspaper business at a time when it was dominated by men. The story caused me to reflect on the handful of women I knew and worked with at the Houston Chronicle who had come into newspapers at the same time Vivian did. It was a group of women who graduated from college in the 1940s and entered the workforce in the era immediately after World War II.  Vivian graduated from high school in 1940 and was awarded a scholarship at SMU. She studied journalism, and served as editor of The Campus, the student newspaper.

I never met Vivian until I began teaching at SMU in 2003. But I could tell she was cut from the same cloth as the women I had known and admired in Houston. They came from a time when women in newspapers were generally limited to work in the Women’s News departments. The sections they produced were dominated by news of homemaking, fashion, child rearing and the basic domestic responsibilities thought to belong to women in those days. But what they proved over time, and Vivian was certainly in this group, is that they were damned fine reporters. They brought a different perspective to the stories they covered, the questions they asked, and how they wrote.  Ultimately they won the highest awards in journalism. Many went on to become fine editors, and the newspaper business, slowly but surely, changed for the better.

In the times I was with Vivian, she was never without that infectious smile. She was unfailingly kind and gracious. And even into her 90s, she had an enthusiasm and an intellectual curiosity that made her the journalist she was. She will be missed, but her contributions to journalism will never be forgotten.



The Confederate monuments

The statue of Robert E. Lee and a Confederate soldier that has been removed from Lee Park in Dallas.

After a few months of debate, the statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Park in Dallas has been removed. The monument was dedicated in 1936 by President Franklin Roosevelt. A national discussion is taking place over the placement of monuments honoring the Confederacy, of which Texas was a part, during the Civil War. What has taken place in Dallas strikes me as a bit precipitous and even strange in the sequence of events that preceded the removal.  On August 15, Mayor Mike Rawlings announced that he was appointing a task force that would issue a report within 90 days on what to do with the Confederate monuments in the city. In addition to the Lee statue, there is a Confederate War Memorial in downtown Dallas. Yet strangely, only days after the announcement of the task force, Rawlings made a dramatic pivot, and after a 13-1 City Council vote and various stops and starts, the statue has been removed. The removal came only a month after Rawlings announced the task force which, apparently, was never really involved in the process.  (One of the delays in the process occurred when a crane to be used in the removal was involved in a fatal traffic accident.) Now, in addition to ongoing consideration about the Confederate War Memorial, there is discussion on what to name the park as well as the possible renaming of streets in the city that bear the names of Confederate soldiers.

No doubt part of the rush occurred after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of a Lee statue there. The national debate is a discussion worth having, so long as it’s a discussion and not hysteria, which unfortunately seems to have developed. For its part, The Dallas Morning News editorial page has been strongly supportive of the removal of the monuments. After the council’s initial decision to remove Lee’s statue, the  paper wrote an editorial strongly supportive of the decision, then updated the piece to express disappointment that a federal judge had intervened. (That intervention lasted only a day.) The paper’s editorial page somehow makes a distinction on Confederate symbols. In another editorial, the paper said that a decision by the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park to remove the six flags that had flown over Texas was a mistake. One of the flags, of course, is a Confederate flag that many, including myself, regard as offensive when used as a display. The paper said that the display of the flags represented historical fact, not a tribute. Someone needs to explain that distinction to me.

My personal opinion is that if a community wants to remove Confederate monuments, they should be removed. Thoughtful consideration and discussion need to occur, and if there are clear reasons and strong sentiment to remove the monuments, so be it. National polling indicates that a majority want to keep them. But it would seem to me that the monuments should be considered on a case-by-case basis. I have seen no real polling specific to Dallas except for an unscientific texting poll by one of the television stations (with more than 80 percent saying the monuments should remain), but I suspect the majority in Dallas would like for the monuments to remain. For this reason, I believe the mayor and the council acted way too quickly. One thing is for certain: The Lee monument will never be returned to public space in the park. At this time, it’s not certain where the statue will end up.

I think I understand, and can agree with a certain sentiment, dealing with the offensive nature of some of the monuments. Interpreting the presence of such monuments in public space as a vestige of support for slavery can be understood.  I fear many of the people protesting the Robert E. Lee statue know little about who the man was. I would be encouraged to know that everyone understood Lee’s reluctance for war, as well as his record of reconciliation after the war. None of that seems to matter. And more and more, there is no national discussion. There is only shouting and anger. A lot of the anger, and perhaps some of the impetus for removal of the monuments, seems fueled by people who are still mad that Donald Trump was elected president. (Advice to those mad about Trump: Get out and work to develop other candidates, including at the state level, who can win elections. Honestly, I’m not sure I see that happening. But that’s a blog item for another day.)

For some time, I’ve had two absolute limits on the removal of Confederate monuments. We shouldn’t remove monuments from historic battlefield sites. The National Park Service has wisely announced that Confederate monuments, including a statue of Lee, will not be removed from the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. And we should never remove monuments related to cemeteries or in any way disrespect the graves of Confederate soldiers. (For guidance on this subject, see the graves of almost 500 soldiers who fought for Nazi Germany maintained with dignity and respect by the British in the Bayeux War Cemetery in Normandy, France.)

The Confederate War Memorial near City Hall is more problematic because it’s a 60-foot-tall column topped by a statute of a Confederate soldier. Moving it will be difficult, and finding a permanent place to house the monument could prove even more difficult.  The initial estimates on the cost of moving the Lee statue were about $500,000. Higher costs will no doubt be involved with the Confederate War Memorial.

I have never been certain what is really being accomplished by moving the monuments. The racial issues that have plagued this country since its founding won’t be going away. If removal of the monuments would help even incrementally, I would say that the process and the costs will have been worth it. I also wonder whether there will be a political price to be paid by Rawlings and certain members of the City Council. I have a suspicion that Rawlings and some of the council who voted to remove the Lee statue so quickly didn’t fully understand public sentiment. And I have no problem with Rawlings pushing to move the monuments. I do have a problem with announcing a task force to study the issue for 90 days, then abruptly deciding that the Lee monument should be moved. Let me be clear that I think very highly of Rawlings as a person and as a mayor. I think he has led Dallas very well. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think elected officials should do what they say.

Now there’s a discussion to change the names of a number of Dallas Independent School District schools. Among the famous people “requiring further study” as being appropriate for school names are Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Sam Houston. These are in addition to those schools named for Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, William L. Cabell, and Stonewall Jackson.

I don’t know where it goes from here. I only hope that requiring further study produces more thoughtful input and response than was given the removal of the Lee statue.

SMU steps in it, but recovers

SMU has been in the news in the last week, and not especially in a favorable light. The controversy began when the university announced a plan to move a student display honoring the victims of 9/11 away from an area near Dallas Hall. The move included other student displays, but it was the 9/11 display that drew the headlines. Dallas Hall is the most prominent and recognizable building on the campus. In the initial report on the move, The Dallas Morning News reported that a policy by the university from July had determined that students had a right to be free of “messages that are triggering, harmful or harassing.” The paper also reported that the policy had been changed, but it was still the university’s intent to move student displays to an area other than near Dallas Hall. SMU immediately issued a statement of apology, noting that the display was an “important campus event” honoring the victims of 9/11. The display has been erected each year since 2010 by the Young Americans for Freedom, a student group on the SMU campus.

Other coverage followed in the Dallas paper as well as some national press, including Fox News. Among the other coverage was a column by Morning News writer Jacquielynn Floyd taking the university to task for the politically charged language of “triggering” mechanisms that has been an issue on several notably liberal campuses. Floyd correctly described the term as “idiotic.” Other coverage reported an exchange of correspondence between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and SMU President R. Gerald Turner. Abbott encouraged the university to continue to allow the display in its place of prominence next to Dallas Hall. Even with the initial apology, it was still the university’s intent to move the various student displays away from Dallas Hall. The university’s position on moving the displays lasted for a week. Yesterday, the story finally came full circle with SMU agreeing to allow the 9/11 display in the same place where it has been. I don’t believe the initial communication to students intended to link “triggering” messages directly with the students’ 9/11 exhibit, but the damage was done.

In a letter to the SMU community dated Aug. 10, the day after the agreement, President Turner outlined the new agreement and acknowledged the mistake in communicating a policy that had not been approved. He said in the letter the error was one “we deeply regret.”

In putting this matter to rest, I’d like to make three points.

  • It could have been defensible to move all such displays away from the Dallas Hall area for the purpose of maintaining access to space that is the most visible and arguably most important on the campus. However, when the students’ 9/11 display became the focal point of the story, SMU was an automatic public relations loser. Students honoring 9/11 victims by putting 3,000 flags on prominent lawn space? Why would anyone pick that fight? It was an easy target for a conservative governor to make his points, which he did. It was also easy to gather sympathy for deserving students engaging in a sincere and honorable project.
  • The Morning News was not entirely correct in reporting that the language on “triggering” mechanisms was policy adopted in July.  In fairness to the newspaper, the message apparently was communicated as policy. It was language that was communicated to students in error, as we now know. The university, in its apology, said that the language had never been through the approval process. What seems to have happened is that the language had been on some document and ended up being transmitted to the student groups. It was error compounded by error, and embarrassingly so. That the 9/11 display could ever have even been tangentially associated as a “trigger” was absurd and insulting to students and the public. In his letter, President Turner made clear that the decision to move the displays, including the 9/11 display, was in no way connected to the language that was used. The language smacks of a politically correct dogma that has no place on a university campus. I expressed myself on this point as it related to university life in an op-ed piece published online by the Morning News almost two years ago and in other items on this blog.
  • I have written this before and will do so again. SMU has an excellent record of free speech and open intellectual inquiry, including academic freedom. Beyond the embarrassment of the current case, let’s hope it’s an instructive moment for the public as well as students and faculty. Many seem to believe that because “Methodist” is a part of the university’s name, there are inherent limits on freedom of expression. Most of our students and faculty aren’t Methodists, and one of the strengths of SMU is that we are a campus without religious requirements of any kind and open to all faiths. I am a Methodist, and the tradition of openness to experience and intellectual freedom was established by John Wesley, an Oxford graduate, in the foundation of Methodism in the late 18th Century.  That tradition has carried through in the number of excellent universities established by Methodists in the United States. Some of those universities still have Methodist affiliations, and some don’t. There is a famous story, frequently told and written by the late SMU Professor Emeritus Marshall Terry, of a major controversy in the 1950s when a socialist was invited by students to speak on campus. President Willis Tate found out about the invitation by reading The Daily Campus, the student newspaper. Howls of protest emerged from the conservative business community in Dallas, including a columnist in the Morning News who labeled Tate a “pinko.” Tate stood firm, and in the retelling by Terry said, “As long as discourse is civil on this campus, there will be free speech.” The speech occurred without incident.  Finally, Jacquiellyn Floyd noted in her column that it was the students, both conservative and liberal, who had come forward and in a statement expressed strong support for free speech and that there was no right to be “shielded” from ideas. The students put it brilliantly. And it was Kylie Madry, the editor in chief of The Daily Campus, who was out front on the story from the beginning. Her original story on Tuesday, Aug. 1, drew a link from The Washington Post.

In closing, I send out a special note of appreciation to the leaders of the various student groups who spoke up for freedom of expression.  As I’ve noted to several others, it could be we’re doing something right in the classrooms at SMU.

Welcome First Amendment decisions

Whatever one thinks of the U.S. Supreme Court, there has been a rare consensus emerging to protect free speech. Two court decisions this week highlight this important protection of the First Amendment. The first decision came in favor of an Asian rock group that attempted to trademark the name Slants. The group challenged the U.S. Patent and Trademark office because of a law against trademarks that disparage people or groups.  The leader of the group, Simon Tam, said that the group was trying to reclaim the slur against Asians as a point of pride. The group lost in the first legal rounds. But Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought we hate.” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion that was joined by the court’s liberal wing, but all justices agreed on the basic decision that the law infringed on free speech.

The court was also unanimous in striking down a North Carolina law that prohibited sex offenders from using social media websites on which they might come into contact with potential targets. Kennedy wrote that the law was much too broad and “unprecedented” in limiting the scope of First Amendment speech. The court noted that the law prevented sex offenders from engaging in public discourse and using websites that might lead to employment. It’s obviously difficult to find sympathy with sex offenders, and several of the justices noted that much narrower laws limiting sex offenders’ access to social media might withstand constitutional scrutiny.

The first case seems to lend broad support to the ongoing controversy of the Washington Redskins. The NFL team has been pressured to change the mascot of the team because the term is widely considered offensive. Team owner Daniel Snyder said in a statement that he was thrilled, and “Hail to the Redskins.”

Even some conservatives have agreed that the term Redskins is offensive, and is different in its characterization than other similar terms, “Chiefs,” as in those in Kansas City, and “Braves,” as in Atlanta. Numerous college and high school sports teams have been pressured into changing mascot names. Some of the changes perhaps have been justified; others, sadly, have simply been caving to the pressure of political correctness. I agree that the origin of the term “Redskins” leads one to the conclusion that the term is disparaging and offensive. So be it. Do we really want government bureaucrats making that determination? If the First Amendment stands for anything, it stands for the right to be offensive, and, yes, even hateful. We are seeing appalling attempts by certain groups on the left to limit free speech and to place boundaries on robust dialogue. The court’s decisions this week, especially the first regarding offensive trademarks, are a welcome affirmation that the First Amendment still stands for free speech.