HUD Regulations Long Way from Censorship

Article excerpt

Keeping our work inclusive is a benefit to our work, not a threat.

It would be hard to find a journalist who didn't strive for precision in his or her copy. Or a reporter who wouldn't fight - be it with an editor or with a court - for the right to use the best words for the job. Those who struggle to make print and broadcast news more inclusive start with the same premise: that it's our job to cover people and events as fairly and accurately as we can, right down to the language and the sources we use.

So what of Mike Buffington's recent postulation in these pages ("Beware the `word police," September 2000 Quill) that a government agency might someday monitor political speech in the name of diversity? As evidence, he points to a corps of federal "word police" who he says charge newspapers big fines for language or illustrations that might remotely be construed to indicate discrimination in housing.

First, let's get something straight. No one, not even the most ardent proponents of fair and inclusive coverage, is advocating that the government mandate newspaper content or word use. And of course if they did, such a proposal would be unconstitutional. Even hate speech is protected by the First Amendment as long as it does not incite imminent violence.

It's silly and perhaps even dangerous to leap from efforts to become more representative in journalism to threats of mandates, especially in the context of the Society of Professional Journalists. We are founded upon the principles of encouraging accuracy, fairness and yes, diversity in journalism. But no member would suggest that these be regulated. Guarding free speech - including imperfect, illogical and even biased journalism - is also central to our cause.

Buffington, editor of The Jackson Herald in Jefferson, Ga., uses several outrageous examples of government intrusion to support his point. He describes state and federal regulators rabid in their pursuit of discriminatory language in real estate advertisements. These officials purportedly axed text describing a "fabulous view over St. Louis Cathedral" because they felt it hinted at discrimination on the basis of religion. And in Atlanta, we are told, a newspaper had to remove a picture of a golden retriever from a display ad because this breed was too closely associated with white families. Even a description of a "walk-in closet," Buffington speculated, might be seen as biased against people with disabilities.

There indeed are rules designed to guard against discrimination in housing - and advertisements that express preferences or limits to who can apply. Brian Sullivan, spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C., confirms that his office is charged with the job. And yes, contractors across the country respond when a particular newspaper ad has wording that indicates certain types of people aren't welcome because of their race, age or religion.

But it's best to view Buffington's description of heavy-handed monitoring of language as the stuff of urban legend, Sullivan says. There simply are no word police. "We act on the basis of complaints," Sullivan explains. "We will look at (the wording) to make sure there is clear evidence of discrimination. If a contractor came to HUD with reference to a golden retriever or a lovely view over a cathedral - that would go exactly nowhere."

So what sort of words get HUD's attention? "No blacks allowed. No gays. Jews only," Sullivan says bluntly. "It has to be definitive, dear and unambiguous."

The Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity did confirm one of Buffington's examples. Gordon Joyner, executive director, tracked down a classified ad in 1998 that stipulated "no children." When state officials first called with their concerns, the owner said he was worried about a steep stairwell. Then he said he was on a bail bond for unspecified federal charges that didn't allow him to be alone with anyone under age 18. …