The Weekly Standard ran an article in their 15 Apr issue concerning an egregious assault on free speech by none other than the self-important mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter. It seems the Philadelphia Magazine was so rude as to run an article about one journalist’s view of “Being White in Philly,” and Nutter has used his office as mayor—not his status as resident—to attack both the magazine and the article’s author and publisher. His official letter—on city stationary—to the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission can be read here and here.
In response to Nutter’s assault, I sent the letter below to the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission. We’ll see whether the PHRC takes it seriously, and by extension whether they take race relations and/or free speech seriously.
Ms Rue Landau
Philadelphia Human Relations Commission
601 Walnut Street
South Philadelphia, PA 19106
Dear Ms Landau:
I am a blogger, but that’s not why I’m writing to you. I’m writing to formally object to an egregious attempt at government censorship by Mayor Michael Nutter, an assault that, if allowed to go unsanctioned, harms not only Philadelphians, but all Americans.
Last month Mayor Michael Nutter sank to a new low even for a member of a party that has long pretended that its constituents were the only citizens civically engaged and socially active in the Philadelphia area. His March letter, “Mayor Letter to PCHR,” published among other places at Philly.com’s http://media.philly.com/documents/MayorLettertoPCHR.pdf Web page, aggregates the disparaging beliefs, the negative stereotypes, the ignorant condemnations typically, and historically ascribed to those who disagree with his party’s principles into one pathetic, uninformed letter that objects to an article in Philadelphia Magazine. Mayor Nutter, among other things, decries those Philadelphia residents, “many of whose names either the author or the speakers themselves were too cowardly to provide,” for their anonymity without any trace of the irony that not only is anonymity a right in free speech, Mayor Nutter demonstrates the necessity of that anonymity with his governmental attack on them and on that article. That a mayor of a major city in the United States thought a collection of these despicable, over-generalized, mostly foolish objections to a civil discourse the trend of which he disapproves rose to the level of warranting governmental attack is unfortunate enough. Worse, the beefs of the mayor of the nation’s fifth-largest city about the “offending” article—all of them—go unanswered by him: what matters is that those who wrote and published this speech of which he disapproves be investigated, to allow the mayor to pass along his own misguided perception of certain others as a group that, in its entirety, is dishonest, uninitiated, irresponsible, and largely bigoted. Moreover, compounding the sin of having made his complaint an official governmental charge, the mayor cynically and hypocritically insists that his own motive is purely for the benefit of all Philadelphians.
Anyone who reads a newspaper or watches network (or cable!) news knows that conversations about race must, of necessity, include not only black but Caucasians, Latinos, and members of other ethnic groups as well—either in the same conversation or individually in a collection of conversations—a position suspiciously absent from a letter that decries an article that attempts to be one of those conversations about race. More egregiously, Mayor Nutter, who quotes the article that so offends him that “[w]hat gets examined publicly about race is generally one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color,” commits the same sin, by examining race exclusively from the perspective of, apparently, a city government that has used isolated argument by groups that are not “in” to draw pervasive generalizations that the mayor then ascribes to the belief system of Philadelphia’s entire non-liberal population. Mayor Nutter avers his objections decision by decrying, first, the magazine’s statement that it “is a story” merely because it features white Philadelphians, as opposed to Philadelphians of color, talking about race, as if merely a government official claiming the article’s illegitimacy makes it so. Mayor Nutter’s second contention seems to center on the premise that publishing a piece about race to which he objects renders the problems of the city’s “underclass” no longer his party’s, and its alone, to fight, as if the city’s race relations—good or ill—are not a matter for all Philadelphians, or more broadly, for all Americans.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “letter” as “2. A written or printed communication directed to a person or organization[,]” with no intimation of factual basis inherent in the concept. However, as Mayor Nutter notes about the article that offends him, trying to deconstruct his letter’s many logical fallacies not only is an exercise in futility but offers his letter unearned credibility. Obviously, unless the Mayor personally knows the publisher or author, an assumption of nefarious purpose by him is patently foolish. Obviously, the many positive, quality opinion pieces and news articles of the Philadelphia Magazine‘s publishers and journalists, and those of journalists of all political persuasion, are denigrated by the cynical presumptions of a mayor whose job, after all, seems to be to root out all writings of which he personally disapproves.
Rather than raging against the abject ignorance reflected in this uninformed, ill-advised, ill-considered, uninspired, and thoroughly unimaginative letter, I believe we should take the opportunity Mayor Nutter’s letter offers to conduct a more comprehensive, fact-intensive evaluation of the racial issues and attitudes that provide the prism through which not only Mayor Nutter’s administration, but administrations at all levels across the country, view the many challenges that confront us as a community and as a nation. I therefore request that the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which is charged by the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter with a mandate, among other duties, to “institute and conduct educational programs to…promot[e]…understanding among persons and groups of different races, colors, religions and national origins,” conduct an inquiry into the state of racial issues, biases, and attitudes within and among the administration of the City of Philadelphia.
Also, because “[i]n the performance of its duties the Commission may cooperate with interested citizens and with public and private agencies,” I ask that the Commission take testimony from individual citizens and from organizations including but not limited to community groups, non-profit organizations, community development corporations, law enforcement agencies, and religious organizations—perhaps citizens and organizations representing the ethnic, economic, and social diversity easily found in your great city—for the purpose of publishing a report on the state of racial issues in Philadelphia, identifying the racial attitudes, both positive and negative, that pervade the Philadelphia city administration’s civic interaction and discourse; the obstacles and opportunities that those attitudes present; and recommendations for the improvement or enhancement of the city government’s racial interaction and the encouragement and embrace of the diverse culture that Philadelphia should be able to enjoy.
Finally, I ask that the Commission consider specifically whether Mayor Michael Nutter is appropriate for rebuke by the Commission in light of the potentially inflammatory effect and the reckless endangerment to Philadelphia’s racial relations and more broadly to free speech possibly caused by him with his official, government-sanctioned complaint to this Commission, made with a view to attack the speech of which he personally disapproves and whose speakers he used government auspices to seek to sanction. While most Americans fully recognize that constitutional protections afforded the press are intended to protect the media from censorship by the government, Mayor Nutter clearly does not. It’s true that the First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right, and notwithstanding the First Amendment, a publisher has a duty to the public to exercise its role in a responsible way. However, government is not allowed, under our Constitution, to dictate the definition of “responsible.” Mayor Nutter’s cynical claim of equivalence between a serious article concerning race relations is akin to “shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater,” is little more than a disingenuous attempt to arrogate control over a conversation about so serious a matter as race relations to government. I therefore ask the Commission to evaluate whether the “speech” employed in Mayor Nutter’s letter is itself prejudiced, fact-challenged generalizations and so an extreme reaction. Only by debunking myth with fact, and by holding accountable those who seek to confuse the two, can we insure that the prejudices reflected in the letter are accorded the weight they deserve: none at all.