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  • Writer's pictureArmstrong Williams

Armstrong Williams: Censorship atrophies critical thinking

PUBLISHED: June 12, 2024 |www.baltimoresun.com

On June 10, 2024, The Baltimore Sun Guild issued a thoughtful statement critiquing the new ownership of The Baltimore Sun. As co-owner, I was singled out for disparagement for deploring the transgender movement and using terms on the Associated Press’ de facto Index of Forbidden Words, for example, “biological male” and “biological female.” I am writing this response not as a Guild adversary, but as an ally in a common search for truth without ulterior motives.


The Sun’s co-owner David Smith is the executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns FOX45, and The Guild fretted over publication by the newspaper of articles from FOX45.  The FOX45 News Team has been beribboned by the Radio Television Digital News Association with regional Edward R. Murrow awards. On May 9, the FOX45 News Team received 39 Emmy Award nominations, with award winners to be announced on June 22, 2024.  Why should The Baltimore Sun boycott journalistic excellence from FOX45?

The Guild also voiced alarm that The Sun has published articles that do not fit the Procrustean bed of the AP’s industry standards. It referenced a June 3 FOX45 article that repeatedly used the term “illegal immigrants,” in violation of industry best practices as ordained by AP.  But AP has not been endowed by law to prescribe journalistic mandates. These are the words of United States Supreme Court Justice and liberal icon William Brennan in Plyer v. Doe (1982): “Our conclusion that the illegal aliens who are plaintiffs in these cases may claim the benefit of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection only begins the inquiry.”


What is offensive about describing persons whose presence in the United States is in violation of law “illegal” when that same terminology was used by the Supreme Court in a case finding a constitutional right of “illegal alien” children to attend public school at no cost?  Shouldn’t readers be informed that millions of immigrants in the United States are here illegally?  Isn’t that a clue that consideration should be given to amending the law or upgrading enforcement?


The Guild elevates the AP’s “industry best practices” to “The Sun’s ethical standards.”  But where does the Guild derive authority to prescribe ethics?  How does it define ethics?  Is it any less subjective than Justice Potter Stewart’s legendary definition of obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964): “I know it when I see it.”


The Guild adds, “[W]e believe…industry standards must be followed.” But to fix the terms and conditions for practicing journalism by industry agreement smacks of price fixing in violation of the antitrust laws.  Could newspapers collectively agree to a specified number of column inches devoted to politics, sports, entertainment or environmental issues to limit competition for readers?


I do not doubt that the Guild sincerely and passionately believes its conception of enlightened journalism. The First Amendment protects that right.  But I and others have an equal right to disagree and to march to our own journalistic drummers. None of us is infallible.  That is why a free marketplace of ideas is indispensable to the discovery of truth.

We all need to hearken to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes dissenting in Abrams v. United States (1919): “But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”


Most of what we believe consists of confronting and finding alternate views less persuasive.  Censorship or suppression of any sort atrophies critical thinking and weakens conviction and understanding.  We should never forget that civilization was born with the epiphany, “I could be wrong.”


Armstrong Williams (awilliams@baltsun.com; @arightside) is a political analyst, syndicated columnist and owner of the broadcasting company, Howard Stirk Holdings. He is also part owner of The Baltimore Sun.

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