Why did SPJ take so long to speak out on Indiana’s RFRA legislation?

Last Thursday, while traveling to the region 5 SPJ conference in Louisville, I was contacted by SPJ member and secretary-treasurer candidate Jason Parsley about the legislation passed that day by Indiana Governor Mike Pence, essentially making it legal for Indiana businesses to discriminate against others based on their religious beliefs. Opponents of the law – myself included – interpreted the legislation as being anti-LGBTQ, and a public uproar ensued. Mr. Parsley asked me how this impacted SPJ, and he voiced his concerns as a candidate who might be attending future board meetings in the state. I indicated I was traveling and wanted to research the issue before answering him. I did, however, tell him I was personally appalled by the state’s actions.

After conferring with colleagues, several board members and SPJ’s legal counsel, I made the decision last Friday not to issue a statement for several reasons. I was responsible for that decision, and am not excusing it, but would like to explain my thinking. In no particular order

1) This is a freedom of religion issue, not directly related to journalism.Of those I consulted (approx. 8), only one was in favor of SPJ making a statement.

2) Other organizations, including several representing SPJ by virtue of our location (the local chamber of commerce of which SPJ is a member and the mayor of Indianapolis) spoke vehemently against the legislation, leading many of us to believe immediate action would be taken. In fact, the mayor of Indianapolis has mandated that discrimination not be allowed by law in the city. As it turns out, the issue has been discussed, addressed and morphed daily. In fact, by the time I post this, a resolution may have been found.

3) I did not feel that a stance of this magnitude was mine alone to make. With legislation not taking effect until July 1, and an April 18 national board meeting planned, I put it on the agenda for the April meeting, feeling that would give the board adequate time to discuss this issue in person.

4) As the organization’s elected leader, it is my responsibility to look at how this impacts the entire organization, now and in the future. I must be prudent, cautious and representative of our members. Until yesterday, not including those I reached out to, I had only heard from five of our 7,500 members, including Mr. Parsley. Normally, on big issues, the outpouring of concern is much more significant. That doesn’t mean the issue wasn’t important to others, but I only heard from a few.

That said, I serve the board and our membership. After hearing from many members of our board yesterday and today, as well as Mr. Parsley and his local chapter, I changed my stance. SDX president Robert Leger and I made a joint statement today. In the interim, my actions have been attacked. I could take it personally, and sometimes I do, but I respect the passion and concern that Mr. Parsley and other members have. I understand why they feel I moved too slowly, but I did what I felt was appropriate at the time. My intent was not to dismiss their concerns, and if I gave that impression, I apologize. With new input and new information, I made a different decision.

On a personal level, as a Hoosier born and bred, this legislation is very upsetting, and I am disappointed in my home state’s leaders for allowing it to get this far. Discrimination of any kind is wrong and should not be accepted under any circumstances. Quite frankly, it makes me glad I live in Washington now, a state where all are accepted regardless of how they are categorized. I have friends who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning, and I feel for the uphill battle they fight every day. This sort of short-sighted legislation makes it even worse, and I am sad that our culture and our government are not more evolved. We are all people, and we all have rights, and we need to fight for them every day. Sometimes that means stepping outside our scope or mission to stand up for what we believe in.

Thank you to Mr. Parsley, the Florida SPJ chapter, the national board and all those who have commented or expressed concern, regardless of your position or our differences. I am proud that we are working together and learning from each other to make SPJ – and our world – a better place.

 

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