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An OSU newspaper columnist's firing continues to reverberate

What began as a controversial column in the Oregon State University student newspaper has now led to national publicity and debates on campus about race, free speech and journalistic integrity.

A Barometer columnist was fired last week after a column he wrote for the April 9 edition of the newspaper was called racist and ignorant by OSU students, staff and faculty.

David Williams, a fifth-year senior in business, wrote in his column that African Americans have not been able to close gaps in racial disparity because they have poor role models. He used R. Kelly and O.J. Simpson as examples.

"I think blacks should be more careful in deciding whom they choose to support," Williams wrote. "They need to grow beyond the automatic reaction of defending someone because he or she shared the same skin color and is in a dilemma."

The column, titled "A message from a white male to the African American community," immediately sparked a response from readers, including faculty and university staff members concerned that a column they deemed racially insensitive could have been published by the student newspaper.

In response to those concerns, Barometer Editor Niki Sullivan said the staff is looking critically at their editing process, their fact checking, and how many people read each article or column before it goes to print.

Sullivan said Williams was not fired because of the accusations of racism, but because he refused to acknowledge that the column was flawed and poorly researched, and that he would not use the criticism as a learning experience.

"That he was unwilling to see there was anything wrong, concerned us," she said.

Free to write, and incite

Williams had worked at the Barometer for a year, writing political columns once a week.

"There was a lot of leeway," Williams said in an interview. He picked his own topics every week and, although they were edited, he said he never had trouble getting his columns printed.

Some of his topics generated a lot of response, frequently negative, especially when he talked about his personal pet peeve, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

Williams said he received no formal training at the Barometer, and that he gleaned many of his ideas from books and television news. He became used to, and even enjoyed, the debate and flurries of e-mail sparked by his columns on such topics as Michael Jackson and "The Passion of the Christ."

The day after

But when Williams opened his e-mail the day after his April 9 column was published, he was surprised, he said, not by the controversy but by the labels being applied to him by readers. He was being called ignorant and racist. He called his supervisor, Forum Editor Christina Stewart.

"I asked her if she thought I was out of line, ignorant or racist," he said. Williams said Stewart told him she didn't have a problem with the column, and that if it had been too controversial, someone would have said something to him before it printed.

Sullivan normally edits Williams' work after Stewart, but was out sick Thursday and Friday. Her first chance to read the column was Sunday, after it had printed, and before she heard any of the controversy. She said her first response was the realization that the column should never have run.

"I talked to everyone involved and asked, 'What was it about this that made it OK to go into the paper?' " she said. She said she was determined to make it a learning experience for her staff.

When Williams arrived at school Monday afternoon, he learned that a group of protestors, including students, staff and faculty, had gathered in the Memorial Union Quad earlier in the day to speak out against his column. When he got out of class that afternoon, he was summoned to the Barometer office by Stewart.

"They asked me to resign," Williams said. He refused, and was then fired. He said he was not offered a choice of other disciplinary action, educational opportunities or forced sabbatical, and he didn't argue his termination because he was friends with Stewart and didn't want to leave on bad terms.

Sullivan, who wasn't present at his termination because of a previous commitment, said Williams wouldn't talk about what he could do to learn from the experience, or agree that there was anything wrong with the column or his handling of the topic. It was this refusal, she said, and not the topic of his column, that resulted in his termination.

"It was not because it dealt with race and he is white," she said, "and it's not because it was controversial, we run a lot of controversial things … This should never have gotten into the paper. It's a sensitive subject, and he mishandled it."

The Barometer printed a letter of apology in their own paper on April 13, stating "By printing such material in the Barometer, we legitimize the messages, even if we don't agree." A similar letter was published in the Gazette-Times.

The aftermath

On April 15, a forum was held in the Memorial Union Lounge to further discuss the issue. It was mediated by OSU Vice Provost for Student Affairs Larry Roper. Other meetings also have taken place, and groups ranging from the Association of Faculty and Staff for the Advancement of People of Color to the Difference, Power and Discrimination Board (DPD) have expressed concerns about why the column was printed, and about the editorial staff's response to the controversy.

Lani Roberts, an assistant professor of philosophy, is a DPD Board member, and one of those concerned about why the column, which she called racist and paternalist, was published. Roberts teaches courses on power and discrimination. She said it's all too easy for people in a position of privilege to not realize they're causing injury to a voiceless or less-privileged group.

"Speaking as a philosopher, he cannot examine this from a logic point of view because he'll lose," she said. "So he has to refuse to discuss it."

Roberts doesn't think Williams should have lost his job, however.

"I regret they fired him. What has happened to him is (equivalent to) shunning," she said. "I think that was a mistake. This is a learning institution."

Ideally, she said, Williams and his supporters could have come together with some campus members, including students and faculty of color and a facilitator to discuss the article.

"Maybe it could have brought this to some point of understanding," she said.

Williams said he submitted the article on Tuesday before publication, and that he'd spent a lot of time thinking about the piece before he wrote it.

"I just want people to think," he said.

Williams said he hoped to generate conversation around race issues, not leave the impression that he was racist. He wrote a column several weeks previously about his objections to the death penalty because a disproportionate number of African American prisoners are on death row, and said he doesn't understand how the April 9 column could be read as racist.

"I'm receiving all this ridiculous stuff, off the wall," he said. "It's worse not to talk about race."

Williams said he has never taken a race or diversity course at OSU. Sullivan said Williams, like all Barometer employees, was required to take one of the core "Difference, Power and Discrimination" courses offered at OSU. Those courses range from "Ethics of Diversity" to "History of the United States."

More fallout

In a Barometer article printed this week, Williams was accused of using the same wording as nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, who also talked about African-American role models. Williams refuses to comment on the accusation, other than to say he thinks he's standing on firm legal ground. He did say that Pitts' column inspired him to write his own piece.

Radio talk show personalities took up Williams' cause last week. Lars Larson, of KXL Radio in Portland, disapproved of the Barometer's decision to fire Williams. An opinion piece on the issue also appeared in the April 18 edition of The Oregonian.

Williams said he's not anxious for the issue to fade.

"I'm glad it's expanding," he said. "People are seeing the bigger issue, how racism is taboo. I'm white, and my voice has to be quelled."

Sullivan stands by the Barometer's decision to fire Williams, and she thinks the incident has done something important for the Barometer staff, giving them an opportunity to reassess their processes. It's also shaken their complacency. They're working with campus cultural centers to see what can be changed to avoid a similar situation in the future.

"A lot has changed," she said. "People go over things having been reminded what our standards are. We're making sure facts are well represented and opinion has to be based in fact. There's a lot more fact checking, and multiple people are reading things. We're talking to columnists a lot more."

On the Net: http://barometer.orst.edu

Theresa Hogue is the higher education reporter for the Gazette-Times. She can be reached at theresa.hogue@lee.net or 758-9526.

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