Three Times, No Charm

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

Saint Louis University rejects David Horowitz as a speaker. Schnucks’ new downtown store allows a manager to display a crucifix in a visible area. And the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod agrees to sell KFUO to a company that owns Christian music stations, threatening to take classical music off the St. Louis airwaves.

These three situations comprise wholly lawful conduct. In each instance, a private entity, be it commercial or nonprofit, has made a decision about what forms of expression it chooses to exhibit, not exhibit or cease exhibiting. Nothing here is going to garner the attention of constitutional free speech experts.

ADVERTISEMENT

So what’s the big deal? Well, take a closer look at the fabric that weaves through the examples and you will see a more subtle issue, one that should engage discussion and debate. The question is: Should institutions be held up to public scrutiny and accountability for apparent disrespect of their audiences and communities?

In the case of SLU, the consequence is the perception that the school does not value free expression and diversity of opinion. Horowitz, a noted and outspoken conservative, was invited by campus Republicans to give a speech entitled “Islamo-Fascism Awareness and Civil Rights.” The university saw the speech as an attack on Islam, and while SLU claimed it didn’t “cancel” the talk, “suggested” various changes in its focus that resulted in a de facto rejection of Horowitz’s speech. When asked about the content, Horowitz indicated, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that it was not an indictment of Islam but rather of extremism and terrorism, adding that “his speech is about what he sees as a campaign against Jews and the state of Israel on many college campuses. ” And advocates of free speech on college campuses, many of whom disagree substantively with Horowitz on any number of issues, appropriately and vigorously rose to his defense.

SLU’s conduct not only insults those who would defend Israel, Judaism and the world from terror, but shows a lack of respect for its own students. The message that emanates from this exercise is that students are not to be trusted to form their own opinions based on weighing the words presented to them. This is a bad precedent.

While the SLU situation calls for open expression, the Schnucks Culinaria episode suggests the opposite result is appropriate. Why? Because again, the issue is one of respect for the surrounding community. Certainly few would question the community-minded nature of the Schnuck family – its members have been philanthropic role models in St. Louis, and friends of the Jewish community, for decades. But while the company’s support of its manager — who with good but misguided intent suggested that other religious symbols could be displayed as well — may be admirable, why support his personal preference over the sensitivities of its loyal customers?

Think of it this way – would Schnucks, or any grocery for that matter, have stepped up to the plate in defense of its manager if the original offending symbol had been an Islamic crescent? How about a symbol of a pagan nature? We don’t know the answer to these questions, of course, but we could speculate that the tolerance quotient might have been somewhat smaller. Because one customer’s sacred image may be anathema to another, the best course for a commercial enterprise is probably to limit any such displays to private spaces that are not frequented by the public.

Then there’s the curious case of KFUO and the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. Longtime owners and operators of the Marconi Award-winning classical radio station, the Synod has provided a public good to the community for years, and continued the format after KWMU wrongly decided to largely abandon classical music programming. Now, in its desire to sell the station, the Synod executes a total about face, apparently refusing to even seriously discuss a sale to anyone other than the Joy radio network.

This inexplicable behavior is a gross disservice to the St. Louis community that has supported classical programming on KFUO/Classic 99 for so long. When Anheuser-Busch decided to sell the Cardinals, it took great pains to ensure the stability and commitment of its buyers to a quality baseball franchise, and Bill DeWitt Jr. and his partners have delivered with flying colors. Sure, DeWitt and Co. got a very good deal from the brewery, but the quid pro quo was their agreement to shepherd a precious community resource.

Not so with KFUO. The goal of the purchasing entity has nothing to do with the greater metropolitan community. Their weakly-stated desire to see continued classical programming in the area is clearly secondary to their goal of having stronger signal strength to broadcast contemporary Christian music, which they already transmit through weaker frequencies. And while we obviously have no objection to a religiously-based radio station, the loss of a major cultural resource ratchets St. Louis down yet another peg in its national stature.

SLU, Schnucks, Synod. Each a community leader, each had an opportunity to make a wise and respectful choice and in all three instances, they took an errant path. We trust that they and others can apply the lessons learned here and show a greater respect for the communities that have supported them through the years.