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Free Speech Crackdown? Philly Mayor Calls for 'Chilling' Gov't Probe of Magazine


Philadelphia Magazine is under fire, as the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission has been called upon to investigate the publication. The outlet's offense? Publishing a story about Caucasians' views on race relations. The article entitled, "Being White in Philly," quickly caught the ire of Mayor Michael Nutter, who called it "disgusting" and "uninformed" (among other choice words).

In the article, writer Bob Huber interviewed anonymous white residents and asked them how they feel about race relations in Philadelphia. They shared their candid answers -- responses that apparently angered Nutter and led the mayor to implore the commission to reprimand the outlet, reports Fox News' Todd Starnes.

"This month Philadelphia Magazine has sunk to a new low even for a publication that has long pretended that its suburban readers were the only citizens civically engaged and socially active in the Philadelphia area," Nutter wrote in a letter to the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission.

Mayor Michael Nutter delivers his budget address in a meeting room at City Hall, Thursday, March 14, 2013, in Philadelphia. Deafening protests have forced Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to abandon his traditional budget address in mid-speech in city council chambers. Credit: AP

Here's a sampling of some one of the stories that was included in the controversial article:

Take a young woman I’ll call Susan, whom I met recently. She lost her BlackBerry in a biology lab at Villanova and Facebooked all the class members she could find, “wondering if you happened to pick it up or know who did.” No one had it. There was one black student in the class, whom I’ll call Carol, who responded: “Why would I just happen to pick up a BlackBerry and if this is a personal message I’m offended!”

Susan assured her that she had Facebooked the whole class. Carol wrote: “Next time be careful what type of messages you send around and what you say in them.”

After that, when their paths crossed at school, Carol would avoid eye contact with Susan, wordless. What did I do? Susan wondered. The only explanation she could think of was Vanilla-nova—the old joke about the school’s distinct lack of color, its perceived lack of welcome to African-Americans. Susan started making an effort to say hello when she saw Carol, and eventually they acted as if nothing had happened. The BlackBerry incident—it probably goes without saying—was never discussed.

Of course, not all of the quotes included were as benign. Some were more controversial, something the magazine admits. However, they were simply reflective of conversations and interviews that unfolded -- not of the magazine's views as a whole, staffers argue. Still, the mayor isn't happy.

As Philly.com reports, "Nutter asked the commission to conduct an inquiry into racial issues and attitudes in the city, and to decide whether the magazine and the writer should be rebuked."

And the commission agreed with the mayor's assessment, with Rue Landau, the organization's executive director, decrying racial insensitivity and "perpetuation of harmful stereotypes" that were allegedly present in the article. The commission has agreed to explore racial issues in the city as a result of the clash, with Landau promising to "take up the mayor's charge."

In an interview with Starnes, Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath spoke out against Nutter's reaction, claiming that it was over-the-top and that the politician was misunderstanding and mischaracterizing what the media outlet was trying to accomplish through the article. He also expressed concerns that the government was planning to investigate a private publication.

Mayor Michael Nutter attempts to delivers his budget address to city council at City Hall, Thursday, March 14, 2013, in Philadelphia. Deafening protests have forced Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to abandon his traditional budget address in mid-speech. Credit: AP

"I find it chilling that he now wants to use the government to censor a news outlet," McGrath told Starnes. "As a journalist -- as someone who thinks free speech is really important -- I find that really, really troubling."

Rather than backing away, the editor is defending Huber and doubling down on the story. While he admits it caused a firestorm, he said that race is known for stirring emotions when it is explored in media.

"The point of the story was to get a conversation going about race," McGrath said. "Certainly there are some ugly quotes in the story but those quotes in no way reflect the intentions of the author or the magazine."

McGrath noted that some white people don't feel comfortable talking about race. They feel, as he said, that their views aren't welcome.

The article, at the least, was less-than-welcome in Nutter's eyes, as he's hoping the commission will explore whether the magazine's essay was similar to yelling "fire!" in a crowded movie theater -- an offene that isn't covered by the First Amendment.

Huber, too, dismissed the mayor as taking the article the wrong way. In an e-mail exchange with Philly.com, the writer described his views on the matter.

"The goal of my piece is to point out problems in race relations in Philadelphia, and to push for a better dialogue. So I think the mayor is right on point in asking for an inquiry into the state of race relations in Philadelphia," he wrote. "The mayor, like anyone, has a right to his reaction to the article. But I think his characterization of the article's thesis and tone and so forth is off the mark to the point of absurdity."

Others found a middle ground in their views on the article. Philly.com's Will Bunch didn't like the original article, but he found Nutter's actions unpalatable as well. Here are the three reasons he highlighted against the mayor's four-page response letter:

1) The Philly Mag cover was a desperate and pathetic plea for attention by a print magazine that is losing advertisers and readers hand over fist. Their only goal was to get reactions exactly like this. So why, Mayor Nutter, did you reward their bad behavior by giving the editors what they wanted -- showering them with attention, just when it seemed like the uproar might die down?

2) I realize this is a grey area, but like a lot of folks, I get very, very uncomfortable when a powerful public official -- like the mayor of America's 5th-largest city -- asks a government commission to investigate or rebuke a piece of journalism, even, or maybe especially, a bad one. The First Amendment is a right for anyone to publish their opinion, as long as it's not libelous, no matter how wrong-headed and awful either the general public or elected officials deem it to be. Even though surely nothing more will come from Nutter's request than another "discussion," such a letter still comes off as chilling to the right of a free press.

3) Here's what's most troublesome. The weird timing of the letter -- released just one day after Mayor Nutter was booed off the podium of his annual budget address by the city's frustrated without-a-contract union workers -- looks like the work of a man desperate to change the conversation. This is Nutter's greatest skill, after all. How many times has he called some bad guy a name like "a-hole," making that the headline and not the city's intractable murder rate? Isn't this just a different riff on the same tactic?

Read Starnes' full report to learn more about the controversial story.

(H/T: Fox News' Todd Starnes)


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