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Sunday, Jun 17, 2018
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Rekha Basu: When free speech collides with your job

In February, the editor of a small daily newspaper in Iowa called the Newton Daily News posted on his personal Facebook page, “Russia gets a lot of things wrong, but they got one thing right.” Below it was a graphic of intersecting Olympic rings that spelled out: “One man. One woman. One God. One Covenant. One Family.”

Underneath, Bob Eschliman commented: “The Olympics is an athletic competition, not a social experiment.” He was apparently referring to a law Russia passed in advance of the Sochi Olympics banning pro-gay “propaganda.”

In April, Eschliman posted that “the LGBTQXYZ crowd and the Gaystapo” were trying “to make their sinful nature right with God.” He also wrote, “We must fight back against the enemy.”

In May, following a paid suspension and some national press, Eschliman was fired. “He has a right to voice his opinion,” wrote John Rung, president of Shaw Media, the Illinois group that owns the paper. “And we have a right to select an editor who we believe best represents our company and best serves the interests of our readers.”

But Eschliman calls his firing religious discrimination. Last week, on those grounds, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Supporters say he was merely expressing his religious views and has a First Amendment right to do so. They blame the growing power of gay rights activists for his firing.

The other side sees the growing assertiveness of America’s religious right in fighting increased civil rights for LGBT people. Throw in the social media, the growing lack of civility in debate and a company’s concern with its public image and the issues get tangled.

In my view, the most important issue is the role of the editor at a mainstream paper, a job that depends on public trust. Newspaper editors and writers (except in opinion sections) are supposed to approach stories objectively. That typically requires not registering with political parties, not voting in caucuses or signing petitions or sitting on most boards. Of course, bias can still creep in whether or not the editor is too close to a source or airs his or her views in public. But those are minimal measures to prevent a staffer from having a direct stake in a story.

Eschliman’s language and tone force you to ask whether someone that zealous might use the newspaper to advance an agenda. Would the paper under his leadership ignore a gay rights rally? Would it refuse to acknowledge same-sex marriages or reports of discrimination against gays?

A journalist with such strong feelings, whatever their basis, against entire groups of people — in Eschilman’s case, gays, lesbians and transgender people — should probably not be working for a paper that tries to represent the whole community.

There are religious-oriented alternatives. That’s what the editorial page editor of a mainstream American newspaper decided several decades ago. He announced that he was quitting because he felt a growing inner conflict between his Christian views and the secular requirements of his job. It was an honest and honorable decision.

Rekha Basu is a Des Moines Register columnist.

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