S is for Spineless: SPJ Ignores Indiana Controversy

When the NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, came out against the religious freedom bill in Indiana it sent a powerful message to lawmakers. This is a sports organization calling into question a bill about discrimination and religious liberties. Not your typical LGBT rights group.

There’s a group that I belong to that’s also headquartered in Indiana — the Society of Professional Journalists. I am currently the past president of our state chapter in Florida and I have thrown my name in the hat to run for the national board.

So when the Indiana governor signed this discriminatory bill into law I reached out to SPJ national to see how they were going to respond?

To my extreme disappointment they came back with a generic response.

“While we personally disagree with the intent and language of the legislation, it is a freedom of religion issue which does not fall under SPJ's purview,” President Dana Neuts wrote. “To my knowledge, we have not spoken out about such issues in the past, and I don't believe we should now.”

I didn’t realize the NCAA was an organization that typically deals with religious freedom. Oh right — they’re not — they’re a sports organization.

Simply saying this is a “freedom of religion issue,” is short sighted at best. This is not a freedom of religion issue. This is a moral and ethical issue. Freedom of religion doesn’t give anyone the freedom to discriminate – or it shouldn’t.

When I read SPJ’s response one word came to mind: spineless.

Justice. Civil Rights. These topics of our day should be addressed by everyone, not just your run of the mill LGBT rights groups. A multitude of non civil rights organizations have come out against such bills this time around and in the past. The Super Bowl threatened to pull out of Arizona when a similar bill in that state was up for discussion. In Indiana multiple groups and businesses including the NCAA, NASCAR and Starbucks have spoken out against the law.

Furthermore one of SPJ’s highest awards is the “Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award.” Not the freedom of speech award, or the freedom of press award — it’s the “First Amendment” award. Nowhere on the page does it even mention the word “press.” Instead it says it’s intended to “honor a person or persons who have fought to protect and preserve one or more of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

Freedom of religion falls under the purview of the First Amendment and so does freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. All of these freedoms go hand in hand. And sometimes they’re hard to separate.

“Thanks for your concern and for taking the time to reach out. I personally find this action appalling - in Indiana and any other jurisdiction that feels this behavior is acceptable,” Neuts wrote.

Personally being against something isn’t enough. SPJ represents 8,000 journalists, some of which, like myself, are LGBT. They should know that their organization backs them up. Not just personally — but as an organization.

Neuts did say she would add this discussion to their upcoming board meeting on April 18 in Indianapolis. No one will care in a month what SPJ thinks, even if they decide to issue some watered down press release saying how much they love and respect everybody.

But I shouldn’t be surprised.

This is an organization that didn’t even officially include the LGBT community in its diversity scholarship program until 2011. I remember when a fellow local board member, in 2010, suggested I apply. I visited the eligibility page and was disappointed to learn that SPJ’s definition of diversity did not include sexual and gender minorities.

“It is an important and sensitive issue, but it is not a journalism issue and does not fall within the scope of SPJ's mission,” Neuts wrote.

So what is SPJ’s mission? Well it includes this: “To encourage diversity in journalism.”

Yet they won’t stand up diversity?

And what about this part?

“To encourage a climate in which journalism can be practiced freely.”

Laws like these in Indiana promote and foster a climate of fear and discrimination and hatred. What about those LGBT journalists that live and work in Indiana? What about employees of SPJ that work in Indiana? How can they live up to their commitment of being an “equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and encourages applications from all qualified individuals including women, people of color, persons with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals”?

Even SPJ’s code of ethics include these powerful statements about diversity and minorities:

“Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.”

And…

“Give voice to the voiceless.”

Those words inspire me as a journalist. I wish the national board could live up to them.

There’s a reason journalists often quote people saying “no comment” or that person “did not respond” because silence is a statement unto itself.

And SPJ’s silence, speaks volumes.


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