To the editor:
I read in the papers that my beloved alma mater, Wayne State University, has “retired” the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media award because of controversial remarks made by the award’s namesake. In reading some of these remarks – at the time they were made, and again today – I find that, in every case, she has done no more than express her opinion, in fact, regularly using phrases like “in my opinion” and “I think that… “ With all due respect to Helen Thomas’ last professional job as an “opinion columnist” for Hearst Newspapers, I fail to see the controversy.
Frankly, even considering all the common infirmities affecting her in her 91st year, I find many of her recent remarks about Israel and the Middle East to be deplorable and without basis in fact.
However, the same First Amendment that protects my right to be a Jew and a Zionist in America, protects Helen Thomas’ right to express her opinion of Jews and Zionists, no matter what that opinion may be. And while I vehemently disagree with the opinions she has expressed about Jews and Zionists, I will defend, as long as I live, her right to express them.
That’s what they were teaching at Wayne State University’s School of Journalism when I was a student there… when Helen Thomas was a student there. I fear today that my professors and hers are turning in their graves.
I cannot imagine any American journalist – let alone fellow alumni of Helen Thomas — being anything but humbled, honored and proud to receive an award named for her and commemorating her long, distinguished career and many achievements as a woman, a correspondent and an author.
While WSU may believe that by canceling the Helen Thomas award, it is “saving face” and perhaps enhancing the reputation of the university, I suggest rather that it has irreparably diminished the value of a degree in journalism from Wayne State by its clear failure here to uphold freedom of speech – the very foundation of any journalism curriculum.
Others may condemn Helen Thomas for her opinion and her politics – as many have. But a public institution of higher learning – a forum for ideas of all stripes, in particular a school of journalism, is ill-advised to condemn her right to that opinion and her right to express it.
In 1964 (the same year I received my journalism degree from WSU) Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote, in New York Times v. Sullivan, of America’s First-Amendment “commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Even false statements, Justice Brennan wrote, “must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space that they need . . . to survive.”
The reasoning behind WSU’s decision to no longer offer the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media award sends a mixed message to its students – especially journalism students – that the values instilled in them over four years of education are both flexible and expendable; that freedom of speech and of the press is not a foundation, set in stone, upon which life in America is based, but rather merely a suggestion to be taken if it suits you, or left behind when it becomes inconvenient or embarrassing.
I urge WSU to reconsider what it has done, and to apologize… to Helen Thomas, of course, but, more importantly, to the Wayne State University students and alumni who expected better of the university.
Lloyd H Weston, ’64
Newspaper editor and publisher (Ret.)
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