On Making Unpopular Decisions

Like many of you, I’m back in the newsroom at 8:30 this morning after a 16-hour election day, drinking bad coffee (my bad; I made it) and clearing my desk of the voluminous background material I used to prepare for yet another change in governmental leadership as pronounced by the citizens of this state and many others.

Will this change in leadership mean a change in direction? Political pundits can argue that one. I can only offer one prediction I would be glad to take back and be proven wrong: The folks in charge today and the folks who will take their offices in January will be loath to make decisions that rock the boat significantly in any direction.

There is little courage in politics today, as there is little courage for leaders elsewhere to make unpopular decisions.

The Society finds itself at these crosshairs regularly. In our struggle to pass a federal shield law, we were confronted by a dilemma over the definition of a journalist. The senators we needed (and still need through this upcoming lame duck session) to get this bill moving forward demanded a definition that some could interpret to exclude new journalists. SPJ leaders argued. The majority decided it was a shot worth taking to offer federal shield coverage to at least some, if not all, reporters. Our attorneys said they could argue that this wording would protect just about everyone doing journalism.

To me, that wasn’t the issue. Any definition is a slippery slope in my mind. It also fails to keep up with the constant change that defines the journalistic media. But I understood the decision on which I was outvoted in the context of the wheeling and dealing that defines passing laws in Washington D.C. It may have been courageous to take a stand on the definition. It may have been courageous — and practical — to accept the reality of lawmaking. Either decision required some measure of guts.

The Society takes unpopular stances often when it comes to free speech issues. Just this year, we held our noses and signed on to defend the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest near the funerals of veterans who die in combat, despite the church’s repugnant use of offensive signs like “God Hates Fags.” The church claims God kills soldiers as punishment for gay Americans.

No one at SPJ can help but sympathize with the father of soldier Matthew Snyder, killed in Iraq, who sued the church for its protest as he grieved an honorable son gone forever. Yet we still joined an amicus brief supporting the church’s first amendment rights to protest on public property. The implications for restrictions on free speech and press rights were too great.

A decision some could interpret as “supporting” hate speech isn’t popular. Neither is a more recent SPJ call on the Supreme Court to uphold lower court decisions striking down restrictions and labeling requirements for violent video games sold to children. If you’ve seen “Postal 2” you know it’s beyond most “R” rated movies. Video-created blood splatters the screen after massacres that let underaged players imagine themselves as torturers inflicting cruelty on small children.

Even the Supreme Court justices seemed torn when they heard arguments over the case yesterday, while many of us were voting or covering the elections. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has young children, said “The child is not sitting there passively watching something. The child is doing the killing. The child is doing the maiming.” He and several other justices spoke of (disputed) studies that connect watching such games to children becoming more aggressive themselves.

But other Justices seemed to get the point the Society urged them to take when we joined an amicus brief to support the Entertainment Merchants Association, the trade group seeking to strike down the 2005 California law at issue here. Simply, it restricts free speech. It creates government censorship of commercial content. It adds one more exception to the First Amendment. It’s another slippery slope.

As the mother of a young child, I have to add my concern when adults expect the government to parent for them. Can we put common sense back in our personal toolkits? It’s up to us to restrict what our children view.

But that’s not necessarily the popular choice. It’s just the one the Society has to make to protect against any incursions on free speech. If only the politicians we elected yesterday would do the same, weigh issues that present choices for change, choose courses of action despite the backlash sure to follow, and then follow through with courage for the good of the country.

Then we might see some real change.


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