When Popes of the Roman Catholic Church speak ex cathedra (not from the cathedral but from the throne), they communicate infallible doctrine. The Winchester Star newspaper is an unabashed advocate of conservatism, sometimes to the extent that its guest editorials resemble screeds more than they present rational and persuasive argument for a viewpoint. In its December 27 issue, the Star published an opinion piece by a Walter Williams, with a notation that he is an economics professor at George Mason University. The article was also published in the Front Page Mag, an online publication of the David Horowitz Freedom Center (DHFC), which has gained a reputation as an anti-Muslim, anti-immigration voice of the radical right.
Newspapers are, of course, free to publish opinion pieces of their choosing and highlight the credentials of their authors. They are also free to cross-publish editorials from other publications. In this case, however, the tone of the article, in the view of some readers, approached that of shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater. While the current second amendment sanctuary movement has become a fever of right wing emotion, some of the rhetoric has been extreme. Professor Williams’ article bent in that direction.
The professor writes that the Democrats have “seized control” of the General Assembly, threatening some law-abiding citizens of the Commonwealth with loss of their “automatic weapons for hunting.” Fear not, urges this academic, because several sheriffs of some counties have vowed not to enforce any state legislation threatening second amendment rights. The good professor does not offer any theory of either economics or politics to support nullification of state law.
Williams is no stranger to right wing theology, as he has written extensively in support of libertarian ideas. His views echo those of Milton Friedman in this regard. According to his Wikipedia bio, he sees gun control laws as a governmental infringement upon the rights of individuals, and argues that they end up endangering the innocent while failing to reduce crime. Williams also makes the argument that the true proof of whether an individual owns something is whether they have the right to sell it. Taking this argument to its conclusion, he supports legally selling one’s own body organs. He theorizes that government prohibition against the selling of one’s body organs is an infringement upon one’s property rights.
Virginians expect more disclosure and forthrightness from the Commonwealth’s media.
Newspapers have a special responsibility under the First Amendment and within our civic culture. The higher education academy has been a bastion of the free exchange of ideas and speech, albeit sometimes imperfectly. In this instance, the Star undertook no caution that Williams’s opinion was personal and not that of the publication. Unless, of course, that is exactly what it intended. In addition, by identifying the author as a faculty member at GMU, the editors promoted the content and the author–a sleight of hand tactic to entice readers. The disjuncture between the academic specialty of Professor Williams and the topic of the article detracted from the presentation. Frankly, Virginians expect more disclosure and forthrightness from the Commonwealth’s media.
Free speech may seem to be a simple concept, but in this day of fake news, its safeguards must be heightened. Too often, some media fail to be clear about their ex cathedra representations to the faithful readers, thereby betraying the vitality of the First Amendment.