How Amherst College blocks dissenters

In the following email correspondence, Rob Yamins ’72 protests the multiple ways that Amherst College blocks alumni attempts to communicate with the college community and other alumni about their petition asking the college to distance itself from the homophobic views of Prof. Hadley Arkes.

Dec. 4, 2013:  Why won’t Amherst magazine publish our letters?

Rob Yamins

Rob Yamins

Subject: URGENT request: please hold the presses!
Date: 12/04/13 04:35:25 PM
From: Robert Yamins [Class of 1972]
To: [Amherst magazine editor] Emily Boutilier

Dear Emily,

Please forgive any uncharacteristic bluntness on my part, but I write in haste due to what I imagine are imminent publication deadlines for the Magazine. I am not cc’ing anyone else (for the time being only) in the hope that we can work this out, but you are free to cc or forward this to anyone you wish.

I understand the Magazine has declined to publish Ron Battocchi’s (et al) letter to the Editor on the alleged grounds that it does not address the content of the Magazine. Based on that reason, I presume it has also declined to publish any other letters on the same subject that it may have received, so this decision is not merely an editorial choice of one letter over another.

With all due respect, that alleged reason is difficult to comprehend. The “More News” section clearly leads readers to Biddy’s blog with the obvious hope and expectation that they will read it. Presumably the Magazine took this approach because of limited space, thus that section is as good as publishing the blog itself and any distinction between appearing or not appearing in the magazine is meaningless in this context. The blog’s contents are indeed content of the Magazine and subject to commentary by readers.

You also mentioned that this letter is not the right fit for the letters section. Again, I vigorously assert that it is, but if not, for what section of what College publication or medium IS it a fit?

President Biddy Martin

President Biddy Martin

I don’t know if you are aware that the College has denied alumni every other avenue for disseminating an alternative point of view on this subject. It has refused to do an email blast of documents sent earlier to the President and Trustees, despite the fact that it did a College-wide email blast announcing Biddy’s blog (which many believe to be quite inaccurate). The blog itself does not allow commentary and requests that such replies be posted have not even received a response. Access to other listservs (which reach only a small fraction of alumni anyway) has been mostly denied. The Amherst Student, although it did publish one article earlier this fall, has suddenly stopped responding to requests to publish documents and analyses. [Editor’s note:  The Amherst Student later offered to cover the issue further, but when letters to the editor and documents were submitted, The Student declined to publish them, without explanation. The reason for that change of position was requested, but never provided.]

The denial to publish letters regarding Biddy’s blog, together with all the aforementioned, cannot possibly be what Biddy meant in her blog by “freedom of expression”, “fostering critical dialogue”, “more and better speech”, and “free exchange of different perspectives”.

Again, if there is another forum available to which the letter is better suited (and which reaches the AC community at large), please advise. And/or if you can explain why all this does not make a mockery of the alleged values of freedom of inquiry, I would be happy to hear it. If not, I implore the Magazine to reconsider its stance. At the very least, I hope you will hold up publication briefly until this most important matter can be resolved. Clearly there is far more at stake here than the inclusion or exclusion of a single letter.

Thank you for your understanding and attention.

Sincerely,
Rob

Dec. 10, 2013: Please stop what appears to be censorship

From: Robert Yamins
Sent: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 9:58 PM
To: [Amherst College President] Biddy Martin; [Amherst College alumni secretary] Betsy Cannon Smith

Cc: [Amherst College board of trustees Chair] Cullen Murphy

Subject: FW: URGENT request: please hold the presses!

Dear all,

It is not my habit to write to Amherst with urgency and I am not certain to whom I should be writing, but it has been nearly a week since I sent the [above] to Emily Boutilier and I have received no reply of any kind. I understand there is still time before the magazine goes to press, although I don’t know how much.

Indeed all letters on the subject of Biddy’s blog that I’m aware of have received the same rejection as below. I also have no idea if you are aware of this matter and am writing in the hope that someone will stop what, in the absence of any explanation, appears to be a subterfuge for censorship, the ramifications of which will likely carry far. At the very least, I would hope to get a response from someone.

Feel free to forward this to anyone whom you see fit. Thank you for your attention and best wishes to all at Amherst.

Rob Yamins ’72

Reply of Dec. 17, 2013: This is an editorial decision

On Tue, Dec 17, 2013 at 01:15 PM, Betsy Cannon Smith wrote:
To: Robert Yamins; Biddy Martin
Cc: Cullen Murphy; Emily Boutilier

Hi Rob, Thank you for reaching out for clarification on this, and my apologies for the delay in my reply—I’ve been out of town the last few days. You note in your message to Emily that Ron’s (and other) letters were not published as they did not directly address the content of the magazine—that is correct. And as you suggest, it is not a matter of choosing one letter over another. In fact, I know of others letters recently received, on other topics, which have not been published for the very same reason…that section of the magazine is specifically intended for comments on magazine content. The President’s commentary is not printed in the magazine, so letters referring to such would not be included either. There is no attempt at censorship, instead an editorial decision based on content. Emily did advise us of the decision and we agree with that decision.

As always, I send my warmest regards to your lovely family! I look forward to seeing the holiday photos– Peace and joy to you and yours this holiday season.

Betsy

Dec. 17, 2013: How is this not censorship?

On Tue, Dec 17, 2013 at 04:27 PM, Robert Yamins wrote:

To: Betsy Cannon Smith
Cc: Biddy Martin; Cullen Murphy; Emily Boutilier

Betsy,

Thank you very much indeed for your reply. I fully understand you are just doing your job, however I must point out several serious problems with the response:

1) It implies that the Magazine’s policy is never to print letters that do not address content. However the Magazine states on its web site only that (italics are mine) “priority is given to letters that address the content of the magazine.” As Warren Mersereau has already pointed out to Emily (I’m sure he won’t mind my repeating it here), the Magazine has indeed regularly published letters that do not do so:

“….In reviewing published letters to the editor from the past few years, there are letters that focus on other letters, class notes, memorial tributes, the design of and general writing in the magazine, and even a solicitation from a professor for research assistance.

If these other letters meet your criterion that letters must “address the specific content of the magazine” by virtue of referencing something in the magazine though not necessarily a feature article, than certainly my letter does the same.

Again, I appreciate that you responded. I wish your explanation rang true with demonstrated practices….”

2) More importantly, it ignores the thrust of the matter as per my 4th paragraph and 6th paragraph (1st sentence) to Emily. Once again, for what College publication or medium that can reach the AC community at large are these letters a fit? Without allowing any alternative mode of communication for alumni to dissent or even to correct inaccuracies, and with the College controlling all Amherst-community-wide communications on this matter, by what reasoning or definition of the word is that not censorship? I.e. addressing the matter of the letters to the Editor alone (and I continue to assert that the College hasn’t, as per my 3rd paragraph to Emily) doesn’t address the real point.

3) To elaborate on #2, it continues Amherst’s increasingly common and unfortunate habit, intentional or not, of picking and choosing what it wants to answer and ignoring the rest. I.e. subtly and not so subtly changing the issues and arguments and fashioning more facile and easily answerable ones rather than the real ones that were raised. I hate to digress to Prof. Arkes here because that is an entirely separate issue, but this is exactly the sort of thing he does. It is sad to see Amherst borrow from that playbook for whatever reason, again, intentional or not.

Cullen Murphy (Gasper Tringale photo courtesy of Amherst College)

Amherst College board of trustees Chair Cullen Murphy (Gasper Tringale photo courtesy of Amherst College)

From other private communications with Amherst officials which I pledged to keep confidential, I am well aware that Amherst is understandably fearful of loss of financial support over the issue raised by these letters. I also understand that, for institutions just as for individuals, it is a tremendous challenge to accept and allow public dissent. But what a tremendous opportunity it would be for the students as well as alumni to see and hear this debated openly, as we did on controversial matters during my student years, and what a stultifying (and maybe dangerous) effect there would be if it isn’t. Thomas Friedman points this out eloquently in his column in this past Sunday’s NY Times albeit in a very different context, but one can read between the lines and find much relevance to the situation here (Cullen, as a journalist by trade, I’m sure you can appreciate the significance of what he writes.)

Like Friedman with China, I want Amherst to succeed. But he also points out the dangers of the paths that both China and Amherst have chosen. I won’t attempt to predict the exact outcome or timing, but the odds are great that this will come back to haunt Amherst and that is what I fear more than the loss of dollars. If Amherst sacrifices its principles out of fear of what others will (falsely) allege and doesn’t practice what it preaches (i.e. “freedom of expression”), then what is Amherst at that point?

Betsy and all, likewise my best regards to you and yours for the holidays and the New Year.

Sincerely,
Rob

Jan. 16, 2014: The College chooses to remain silent

Subject: RE: URGENT request: please hold the presses!
Date: 01/16/14 10:29:10 AM
From: Robert Yamins
To: Betsy Cannon Smith, Biddy Martin, Cullen Murphy
Cc: Emily Boutilier

Dear all,

Belated Happy New Year to you and everyone at the College.

Even though it’s been more than four weeks since I sent the [above] and I’m sure the magazine has long since been published, because the holidays intervened, I want to be sure this didn’t slip through the cracks and to give the College another opportunity for response. There are two explicit (and non-rhetorical) questions in item 2 and many obvious implicit ones throughout that remain unanswered. Again, feel free to forward this to whomever else you see fit.

If no response is forthcoming, then I must assume the College chooses to remain silent on these serious issues. From that and other observations, I will have to draw the fairly obvious conclusions on what is really going on at Amherst, conclusions which I’m still hoping against hope are unfounded.

Thank you and regards,
Rob

[Although Rob received read receipts to this last follow-up email, as of April 5 no further responses from Amherst College officials have been received.]

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About Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart, a 40-year journalism veteran, is publisher and an editor of the "Erasing 76 Crimes" and "76 Crimes en français" blogs. More profile information on Google+. Colin Stewart, un vétéran du journalisme de 40 ans, est éditeur et rédacteur en chef des blogs "Erasing 76 Crimes" et "76Crimes en français." Plus d'informations de profil sur Google+.
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One Response to How Amherst College blocks dissenters

  1. Pingback: Protest: Martin misstates alumni request, blocks access | Amherst Against Homophobia

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