Tomorrow the Westboro Baptist Church will (theoretically) be coming to picket at UMass Amherst to protest the University, as a whole, because Derrick Gordon, a basketball player for a D-1 team, came out as gay this past week.
In response, students have organized a rally in support of the LGBT community (this wording is important) on campus, aimed partially at outnumbering and drowning out the voices of the WBC. The rally was organized partially to keep people from simply coming out to engage in a shouting match with the WBC, and to keep the understandably high emotions from getting the better of all parties.
The rally originally started as a “counter-protest” but was eventually re-branded to look more like a “pride rally” following conversations with administration and reflection by students. The goal is to create an environment where everyone, including our uninvited guests, will be safe.
But there are interesting things that go on in the background.
First off, thanks to the conversations I’ve had with the organizers, I know which sectors of the administrative and other stakeholders in the community did not agree with the idea of either counter-protest or even a rally. My first ethical dilemma has been whether or not to publicize that. Ultimately, I’ve decided that it is best to leave it alone, and not dig into the complexity of these politics without taking the time to talk to those parties, which I didn’t have the opportunity to at this time.
But my much more pressing ethical dilemma has been that a message went out early on, which has seen been somewhat amended, that said that students should not talk with media, as there would be specific media liaisons who have prepared statements and could stay on message. This caused some small amount of strife within my news room (which resides almost entirely on FaceBook), because I flat out told my reporters that we should use the fact that we, too, are students and are representing student media, which is generally considered less scary than the “real” media, to get people to talk to us.
This would have potentially put us on the wrong side of the administration and put people in hot water with those same individuals, because we would be, potentially, actively undermining the PR message that was being pushed forward.
But the thing is: as a student media outlet our primary job, as I see it as an editor, is to give students a place to get their voices out, literally in our case. We are the place where student voices can and should be given a certain level of priority, and can and should be able to stand against, or at least in a position that can be critical of, the administration and other non-student communities on the campus.
Therefore, we have an obligation to give everyone a chance to get their voices out and express the things that are important to them; obviously, I want to approach this with care and sensitivity. I think that a lot of damage has been done to the University’s reputation, largely due to our portrayal in the media, but I also believe that our student body is made up of intelligent, articulate people who do the University huge credit when they speak, even when they are not speaking on message, or in chorus with the University PR department.