Editor from AL's take on op-ed
As someone who has spent 10 years growing up in Sweet Home Alabama, many thoughts crossed my mind when I saw a tweet from The Democrat-Reporter, a local paper in Linden, Alabama, showing a shocking editorial piece titled "Klan needs to ride again." In it, the editor, Goodloe Sutton, called for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to clean out Washington and lynch Democrats. Was I surprised that such a strong call for violence was made from a local paper in my home state? Unfortunately, no.
Our history, from our involvement in the Confederacy to our latest Senate election between Democrat Doug Jones and alleged sex offender Roy Moore, has not been something to be too proud of. Despite that, was I still disappointed? Of course. Understating the impact of a domestic terrorist group by saying that it "didn't kill but a few people" and inciting violence can be interpreted as a call to action. This is not a matter of free speech; this is a matter of enabling and empowering violence. Regardless of race, religion, or political ideology, such messages should not be tolerated, even under the name of "free speech."
Also, as the editor of an opinion section in a university paper and a strong believer in the freedom of speech, I find it my responsibility to grant my writers as much agency over their own beliefs. The point of an op-ed is to allow people to express their own voices. I strongly believe that part of my duty is to help our university community feel welcome to speak out about topics they believe in, regardless of their stances. I don't care about the letter on my writers' voter registrations indicating their respective party, or which candidates they would support if given the opportunity; in fact, I even encourage controversial or unpopular voices to be shared to spark dialogue. When it comes to editorials submitted to me for editing, all I care about is that they can effectively communicate their message in a respectful way, that allows room for dialogue. The First Amendment protects people from government persecution so that we can have dialogue that can affect policy and change. Advocating lynching and encouraging a domestic terrorist group are none of those things.
This was not the first time Sutton published something so insensitive and provocative. Chip Brownlee, the Editor-in-Chief of Auburn University's The Plainsman, recalled receiving copies of The Democrat-Reporter and being aghast at Sutton's content. Various opinion pieces have targeted immigrants, Jews, women, racial minorities, and the LGBTQ community. Although The Democrat-Reporter is a small publication, Brownlee felt it was important for the general public to be aware of the kinds of media some people are still consuming today. To do so, he has tweeted photos of Sutton's pieces. When posting Sutton's most recent one, Brownlee “didn’t really expect it to become this big of a thing.” However, his tweet caught fire, racking up over a thousand retweets, catching the attention of multiple renowned publications like the BBC and NBC, and resulted in Sutton resigning from the paper.
Public calls for Sutton to step down, coupled with the paper's poor performance, may have had an impact in Sutton leaving the paper. Senator Doug Jones, known for having prosecuted members of the KKK involved in the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls in 1963, tweeted "Good riddance Goodloe. His dangerous views do not represent Alabama or the small-town papers in Alabama that do great work every day. The good people of Linden deserve so much better than these racist rants and I am confident they will get it with new editor, [African-American] Elecia Dexter," indicating a potential new shift for The Democrat-Reporter. Additionally, Sutton had some of his accolades stripped following the editorial, including being removed from his alma mater's — University of Southern Mississippi’s — School of Mass Communication and Journalism’s Hall of Fame. Auburn University also voted to revoke Sutton’s community journalism award on Feb. 19.
Where does Sutton go from here? Even before he stepped down, it was apparent that he wouldn't have a change of heart. It was even more disappointing to hear that he had no regrets, claiming “it got me about $10 million in free publicity. I know I would do it all over again.” He obviously has retained his extreme and racist beliefs and admiration for domestic terrorists and had no shame in vocalizing them by saying that “the Democrats have been terrible... the KKK are the nicest." Currently, he claims he is in the process of writing several books and plans to "drink beer and sex young women. I am not going to do anything with [the paper]. I’m going to be a deadbeat — an out-of-work deadbeat."
Even with this personal destiny, Sutton seems to be content enough with his actions. He viewed being offensive as part of the job description for being a journalist, which he claimed is "what we're supposed to do." He wanted those who did find offense in his editorial to know that “it’s not their country. It’s our country and if they don’t like it, they can go to hell.” If condemning intolerance and believing everyone in this country deserves the inalienable rights explicitly stated in our Constitution warrants such a sentence, I'll happily throw myself into the eternal flames.
Editor's note: I met Chip Brownlee through Associated Collegiate Press (ACP) in Oct. 2018 and discovered that he is currently attending Auburn University, the university in my hometown (Auburn, AL), where he is double-majoring in political science and journalism.