Explaining a controversial letter
On Nov. 19, we printed a letter to the editor written by Jose Ramon Garcia, a former CSUN senator currently seeking election to the liberal arts college. Jose’s letter was controversial because he alleged that several senators within CSUN had informed him of a plan by an outgoing senator, Rachel Stephens, to file a legal case against him within student government on the grounds that he is undocumented and ineligible to serve as someone who is not officially a U.S. citizen.
Some criticized our decision to run the letter without first consulting the accused to get her side of the story. The argument, an example of which you can read on the next page, says that letting the piece run was tantamount to promoting hearsay. Others said that Jose’s letter was libellous, and that The Rebel Yell promoted libellous material in choosing to include the letter in our paper.
But libel simply cannot be claimed when confronted with an overwhelming majority of evidence and testimony from individuals that say something occurred. Of the three students Jose says came to him, two have confirmed with The Rebel Yell that they were indeed present when Stephens made the alleged comments. One of them, urban affairs senator Gil Revolorio, has gone on the record saying so in this newspaper. And while Stephens denied that she currently has plans to file a case against Garcia or seek his deportation, she did say that she had compiled a number of instances of Garcia making his undocumented status public and submitted them to Nevada Student Affairs Director Jessica Lujan — then in charge of running CSUN elections — around the time of the invalidated CSUN elections in October.
Examining cases of ethics in publishing is often useful for its own sake. Journalism ethics is a grey area, not a dogma, and while there are best practices for avoiding ethical problems, there are always factors on the other side, be it the free press or the public’s right to know, that argue just as strongly. The eternal tension of these competing obligations is what makes it difficult for any journalist or editor, and honest hindsight almost always reveals wiser alternatives.
While we feel that the argument for libel is unfounded, it stands that we could have erred on the side of caution. Perhaps waiting to print the letter in order to get the other side, or not printing it at all.
Though attempting to prevent controversy can sometimes be a slippery slope when dealing with inherently controversial subjects, exercising no editorial judgment at all could cause an issue to evolve in such a way that it becomes a “controversy about a controversy,” which would dilute the purpose of the opinion page and the rational discussion of pressing issues in the community.
However, make no mistake: refusing to print the letter because it may reflect poorly on the reputation of a campus official could and would have been met with equal criticism by those who feel the issue lands squarely within the public sphere. While Stephens has the right to voice her opinions about immigration, it can’t be ignored that for millions of individuals, the issue is inherently personal.
If nothing else, we hope that UNLV journalism students will discuss this case among themselves and in classes devoted to ethical discussion and arrive at the optimal solution. While not every editorial decision we make will be entirely defensible or perfectly justified, we hope others can learn from our mistakes.