There was something familiar, eerily familiar, about the stories that a reporter named Robert Huber recounted in his piece for Philadelphia magazine called "Being White in Philly." They were largely stories from white folks who lived in or near largely black neighborhoods and didn't feel free to speak their minds lest their neighbors accuse them of being racist.
These folks found it more prudent to keep their views to themselves, even if that meant not addressing problems that badly needed addressing. Because to express them might be asking for trouble.
What was so familiar about their stories? Just reverse their fears and grievances, and you get a reasonable facsimile of how a lot of black folks must have felt in the old Jim Crow South, when to complain, about almost anything, even if it had nothing to do with race, however well-grounded the complaint, might invite harassment. Or worse. And so they learned, as the phrase went, to keep their mouths set right.
Sure enough, as soon as Bob Huber's piece appeared in print, trouble followed. No less a personage than Philadelphia's mayor, Hizzoner himself, the Hon. Michael Nutter, issued a long letter accusing Philadelphia magazine of aggregating "the disparaging beliefs, the negative stereotypes, the ignorant condemnations typically and historically ascribed to African American citizens into one pathetic, uninformed essay quoting Philadelphia residents." Which sounds like the kind of journalistic critique any Irate Reader is entitled to make.
The piece in the magazine was scarcely great journalism -- a similar mix of grievances and gossip could probably be put together in any large city where a growing black population outnumbers the white residents in its inner core, many of whom feel pushed aside.
Publishing such a piece wouldn't even have required any great courage -- if it hadn't sparked such an over-the-top reaction from city hall. For the mayor went beyond criticism; he sicced the city's thought police, aka the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, on Mr. Huber and his editor, accusing them of "incitement" and "reckless endangerment," which to our ears has the ring of a criminal charge.
If the magazine was guilty of disturbing the peace, it was guilty only in a way journalism should disturb the peace -- by bringing attention to dissatisfactions and injustices -- much the way newspapers in the South who were doing their job focused public attention on the grievances of the black community back when racial segregation was producing separate but unequal societies.
Freedom of the press is not just the freedom to say popular things, or it would not be much of a freedom at all. To quote Mr. Justice Holmes, "if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought -- not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."
Maybe someone should send a copy of Holmes' dissent in U.S. v. Schwimmer (1929), Mr. Justice Brandeis concurring, to Mayor Nutter.
First Amendment or no First Amendment, freedom of the press or no freedom of the press, the mayor of Philadelphia made it sound as if some kind of crime had been committed in print -- and needed to be punished.
To quote from the conclusion of the mayor's letter/diatribe: "I therefore request that the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations ... consider specifically whether Philadelphia magazine and the writer, Bob Huber, are appropriate for rebuke by the Commission in light of the potentially inflammatory effect and the reckless endangerment to Philadelphia's racial relations possibly caused by the essay's unsubstantiated assertions."
The mayor could scarcely have provided more convincing evidence that all those white folks who told Mr. Huber they felt intimidated had good reason for their fears, for the mayor of Philadelphia himself seems out to intimidate the magazine -- by inviting the city's Human Relations Commission to rebuke/harass it in the guise of an "investigation."
To sum up, the repressive spirit of the Inquisition seems alive and well in, of all places, the City of Brotherly Love. Listening to the mayor, you can almost get a whiff of the medieval auto-da-fé. What next, the ceremonial burning at the stake?
The magazine's editor now has been summoned to appear before a meeting of the city's Human Relations commission Thursday. Here's hoping the editor stands his ground and by the First Amendment. Because the surest way to encourage more such bullying is to give in to it.