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Printing opinion columns shouldn't be based on popularity

April 03, 2010|By TIM ROWLAND

I was plenty familiar with Alex Knepper's writing. He had penned a number of op-ed pieces for us, and from the standpoint of raw talent, I regarded him as being among some of the better local writers appearing in The Herald-Mail's opinion pages during the past decade. Not bad, considering the kid was maybe 14 or 15 at the time.

I don't share all that much in the way of Knepper's politics, but I respected the fact that he didn't write junk - that is, he could be inflammatory, but not necessarily predictable. He could filet a liberal with the best of them, but his angles usually were fresh and his style was, and is, marvelously entertaining.

So of course, he's now in hot water.

Now a student at American University, Washington County's Knepper wrote a column for the school paper suggesting that a woman who drinks to excess at a party and then retreats to a male student's residence has no grounds to charge date rape "after you sober up the next morning" should things go poorly.

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More than 400 mostly angry, often furious, comments later, the editors of the school paper created a new policy to review columns before publication (They didn't before? Ah, a columnist's nirvana) and reject or change pieces that are deemed to be controversial for the sake of controversy itself.

Knepper, now 20, said the editors were surrendering to "a bunch of campus leftists using Stalinist intimidation tactics."

If Knepper believes he is being original by comparing newspaper editors to Stalin, he's bound to be sorely disappointed, but forget that for the moment.

If he hasn't already, Knepper is bound to learn that the only thing that makes people madder than publishing something that isn't true is publishing something that people wish was not true.

Knepper's language probably dances too close to the now-discounted premise that rape victims have somehow "asked for it" through their behavior and dress. But he does bring up issues of personal responsibility and risky behavior that we wish we didn't have to think about because we wish they were not true.

Whether you walk home by way of a well-lighted path or by way or a dark alley, you would like to think that you would be just as safe either way. You wish, in short, that you have the right not to be hurt. Which you do. It's just that the chances of that right being violated can be increased or decreased by the choices we make.

Stated in calmer language, this idea seems more food for thought than, as the paper's editors said, an idea written "more to insult than to start a good dialogue."

True, at least to some degree, Knepper is probably in it for the reaction and considers any column that doesn't incite a riot to be a borderline failure. But provocative speech is as old as the nation. So is the right to respond to that speech in kind, as so many American University students did.

The passion and articulation are, to a writer at least, wonderful to see, My wife, Beth, probably summed it up best. She read Knepper's fire-breathing column over my shoulder, along with many of the enraged, spittle-dripping responses. She got a misty look in her eyes and said, "Oh, to be young again."

Good, passionate writing is part of good living. Very few things are as satisfying to me as picking up a paper and turning to an opinion piece that I absolutely, positively know I am going to hate.

Knepper says he probably will stop writing for the school paper. I hope he doesn't mean it. The paper's editors say they will be more careful in the future about what they print. I hope they don't mean that, either.

The only truly disturbing thing to come out of this whole affair is the thought that opinions might or might not be disseminated based on their popularity. If the paper is only going to publish columns that it believes its readers will like, it might as well abolish its editorial page once and for all.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com">timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com">opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 at 6:30 p.m. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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