Sarah Jeglum, editor of the University of Washington Daily, seems confused. "He has the right to share his opinion," she tells me, explaining why she stands by her decision to run a controversial November 25 opinion column by UW senior John Fay, in which Fay described homosexuality as an "emotional condition" that should be fixed, likened gay marriage to bestiality and pedophilia, and suggested that homosexuals should not be afforded equal protection under the law.
While it's true that Fay, like everyone else in this country, has a constitutionally protected right to have and share opinions, that isn't the issue. The issue is whether Jeglum, as editor of a 117- year-old publication that seeks to encourage intelligent debate on the UW campus, should have published Fay's editorial—which ran under the headline "Gay marriage? Let's stop and think about this" but displayed very little in the way of clear thought.
The piece was based on a foundation of circular logic and riddled with basic misunderstandings of the issues at play in the gay-marriage debate. Some of its conclusions are quite standard— homosexuality is a choice, gay marriage is a slippery slope—but the incoherent way that Fay arrived at them was jarring, even to people familiar with anti-gay-marriage rhetoric, as was the illustration that accompanied his piece: a silhouette of a man being nuzzled by a sheep. This is university- caliber dialogue?
"I think in this case, the arguments being made by John [Fay] are arguments being made in this discussion," said Jeglum, 21, striking a confident tone and sticking to her talking points when we met in a small office across from the Daily's cluttered newsroom last week. "The arguments are out there, and it's important that people realize that, well-founded or not, these opinions and ideas exist in the context of this debate."
Of course, that's a complete misunderstanding of the role of a newspaper editor.
Which, in one sense, is fine. Student newspapers exist so that young adults can learn how to practice worthwhile journalism, and Jeglum, who is majoring in communications, says this has been a learning experience for her. It's a learning experience that, as it turned out, involved a lot of anger directed at her by other people, the formation of a new Facebook group called "Students for a Hate Free Daily," demands that Jeglum apologize or resign (she's doing neither), and a protest outside the UW student union.
I'm sure Jeglum has learned a lot. Certainly she's learned what it's like to live under the microscope; in the face of widespread conjecture that she's an archconservative intent on tilting the Daily to the right, Jeglum has refused to say anything about her political leanings. But even if we know little about who Jeglum is, we do know something about how she thinks. UW journalism professors, take note: Jeglum, now in her senior year, remains fundamentally confused about where the abstract right to an opinion ends and the concrete responsibilities of an editor begin.
Someone needs to tell her: Just because a person has an opinion does not mean he or she has an automatic right to publish it in your paper—particularly if your paper seeks to encourage informed debate. Everyone has opinions, yes, and everyone has a right to his or her opinions, but not everyone has an opinion column, because not everyone has well-reasoned, well-founded, logically coherent opinions.
Fay's column was not opinion ready for publication. At best, it was a highly inelegant regurgitation of right-wing talking points; at worst, it was an indictment of UW admissions standards. He wrote:
"For gay marriage to even fit within a court's jurisdiction, it must have some basis in constitutionality. Yet the [California Supreme Court] argued that forbidding marriage rights to gays is discrimination, 'like a person's race or gender.' Race is a biological state; homosexuality is more of an emotional condition, and we should not, for that reason alone, start passing laws condoning it."
If you're going to do the religious- conservative line, it can be done far better—and far more coherently—than this. Fay's jurisdiction argument is a closed loop of illogic (essentially, he is saying, "They don't have jurisdiction because I, John Fay, say they don't"). In any case, it's a loser. Courts determine their jurisdiction and interpret the constitution, not undergraduates, and many courts have now found it within their jurisdiction (and well within their state constitutions) to consider lawsuits seeking equal treatment for gays and lesbians.
As for his race argument, it's quite muddled, with his "biological state" assertion coming off as rather, um, retro. There are, I am sure, many UW professors who would tell Fay that while there are some biological facets to race (skin color, for instance), the dominant factor in the way our culture treats race arises from social constructions, not a set of biological facts.
More importantly, events like the passage of the Civil Rights Act did not come about because people were arguing that race is an immutable "biological state." They were arguing, essentially, that racism is what Fay calls "an emotional condition." For Fay to argue the biological basis for race as if it were the reason for civil rights laws and then try to preclude the equal treatment of homosexuals because of a supposed lack of a biological basis for homosexuality—well, that shows not only a gross misunderstanding of history but also complete ignorance of the current state of scientific knowledge about what makes a person gay.
Fay, who is, ironically, a history major, insists homosexuality is a state that gay people should learn to overcome. "People say being gay is natural and therefore it is a good thing. My question is, why is it automatically a good thing? Some people are born with things that are not good for them," he says.
It's clear that Fay didn't really know what he was saying in his column. Or that he knew what he wanted to say but couldn't say it in a way that made logical sense. Or that he couldn't anticipate and effectively deal with counterarguments. Maybe the problem was all of that and more. In any event, a good editor does not look at a piece such as his and say: "Publish! And throw in an illustration of a guy with a sheep, too!"
I asked Jeglum what the standard was for opinion pieces making it into the Daily. She really couldn't give me any standards, but she did tell me she believes all opinions are valid.
That, of course, is not true—and the mission of a respectable university is, if nothing else, to teach people this.
Additional reporting by Dominic Holden.