Publisher’s Note: The Spy, David Montgomery, and the Limits of Free Speech

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On Monday of this week, the Spy published David Montgomery’s opinion piece on the recent school shooting in Colorado that took place earlier this month. In his commentary, David contrasted the terrorist motives with the heroism of the students who charged the assailant, one of whom was killed during this courageous act. Within his column, Montgomery expressed concerns that one of the murderers, who had been questioning his gender identity at the time of the crime, was the result of our society “brainwashing teens into gender dysphoria.” It was tortured logic at best.

Nonetheless, it has always been the Spy’s mission to provide a safe harbor for very different perspectives, even those that might be repugnant to this publisher or the vast majority of its readers. It was the my hope that readers would use the comment section to refute or challenge these outrageous views. That didn’t happen. In fact, serious damage was done.

In the spirit of doing no harm, or more harm, I have removed David’s commentary from the Spy. There are limits to free speech and the stigma he has attached to transgender people crossed a line that I wish I had the sensitivity as both an editor, and a gay man myself, to see the damage it presents to all of us that live in a culture that remains hostile to the notion of being different.

In my desire to find a full spectrum of thought for Spy readers, I failed my own test in judgment. I am horrified by this gap of moral direction.

Since I started the Spy started in 2009, it has been unambiguously supportive of gay rights, same-sex marriage, transgender protection, and, more importantly, we have celebrated Chestertown’s long history of diversity. I regret that David’s column has put this commitment into question.

Dave Wheelan
Publisher and Executive Editor

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Letters to Editor

  1. Deirdre LaMotte says

    Thank you David. I found the piece equally horrific. I made a decision months ago to respond only to comments readers post
    on Mr. Montgomery’s articles, never to respond to him.

  2. Stuart Cawley says

    Thank you, Dave. I’m sure I’m not alone in my appreciation for your reviewing & reversing your decision to publish David Montgomery’s opinion piece equating non-binary gender w/ homicidal tendencies. I felt sure you were, as you state here, simply trying to provide a forum for all perspectives, but am glad that upon reflection you realized what a serious transgression that was.

  3. Francoise Sullivan says

    Thank you Spy.

  4. Jack Stenger says

    Congratulations on your decision, with which I completely agree. Unfortunately I did not read Dr. Montgomery’s piece carefully enough the first time.

  5. Thank you, Mr. Wheelan. I too was horrified by Montgomery’s repulsive association of LGBTQ teens and school shootings. The only saving grace is that his own repugnant agenda, and that of those who resonate with it, has been made even more clear. Folks such as him will spare no efforts in torturing logic and distorting science to further their own ends. — Bill Flook

  6. Bob Ingersoll says

    Mr. Wheelan,
    I have to disagree with both Mr. Montgomery, and you. First, I read the whole essay twice, and was just as irritated with Mr. Montgomery’s point of view as I always am. But really, what did you expect from that writer, something other than his usual thought process laid bare? I have often replied with comments to his column, I just don’t happen to agree with him, ever. However, being able to read his verbiage always helps me know where I am, and where I am not, in my own thinking.
    So, I disagree with you for removing it, and also with your personal guilt for printing it. When you removed it, you wrongly ( in my opinion) assumed you were protecting some of your readers from being offended, or hurt, by his words. Yes, they are offensive and hurtful to many, but those who are offended will not be swayed by the false arguments or wrong conclusions he makes, and instead will know to avoid his column in the future. Yes, he does seem to have some adherents to his point of view, but I truly believe they are way outnumbered, even in conservative Kent County. And I noted that the most immediate replies to his diatribe were well reasoned (in my opinion again) counter arguments, with much more supportive logic.
    Removing his article sends the wrong signals; that good ideas can not overcome bad ones, and that the first amendment is conditional, especially when his words did not bloody your nose or set your theater afire. They were just very offensive. Even though I don’t agree with his words, his logic, or his opinion, I would still rather have the chance to read them in the Spy, and judge for myself about the character of the writer. How do I know I don’t like David Duke if I can’t read his stuff?
    You did not write the essay, and anyone who can read your opinions should know that you probably don’t agree with it or appreciate it. Instead, you provide a valuable forum for conservatives, liberals, and moderates to broadcast a point of view. Don’t flinch when one of them becomes a bit more offensive than you would like. Yes, edit out their profanity, but let their reasoning defects shine through for your readers to judge.

    • I agree, Bill, I would like to read the piece, and would have liked to have read the responses.
      I can’t find a copy of the article anywhere else on the www.
      Educate – Discuss – Debate – Enlighten

    • Patricia Deitz says

      I believe Mr. Ingersoll’s letter is exactly right. Thank you for writing.
      I am so grateful for the Spy, which allows such important discussions to occur in our community. Writing gives us all an opportunity to think before we speak, and may actually allow some of the tentative, thoughtful exchanges of ideas that our political discourse so lacks at this time.
      I appreciate the thoughtful opinions of Maria Wood, for example,who has written on several of the topics that need reflection and a challenging reality check in our social milieu: Sexism, racism, discrimination against LGBTQ persons, and the threats to our country’s most basic principles. I want the Spy to continue to be the place where what otherwise goes unremarked can be called out and, I continue to hope, be changed.

    • Adam Goodheart says

      Espousing a position like this — “Hate speech is just an irritating but interesting point of view, one that I’m free to agree or disagree with” — is the privilege of those who have nothing real at stake, those who take safety for granted.

      Step outside that position of safety and empathize for a moment. Imagine that instead of being a well-off, well-educated, white heterosexual adult, you are a teenager in a very conservative family in rural Kent County, struggling with your sexuality or gender identity. Imagine that every day at home and at school, you face mockery and sometimes physical violence from those who view you as sick, freakish, or sinful. Now imagine reading an article in a mainstream local publication (by a Harvard Ph.D, no less) endorsing the position that people like you are sick, twisted freaks, liable to go insane one day and start shooting up your school. Imagine that your parents, pastor, teacher, or classmates read the article and use it against you. Or perhaps even worse, imagine that the article makes you believe such things about yourself. There are many scenarios in which it can end in actual harm — both psychological and physical — to some of the most vulnerable people among us.

      This morning, a young trans person who grew up in Kent County expressed it better than I can: “You have to understand the power of words. It’s a privilege to curate the information shared with a community… and the privilege has been abused… and so have I. So many people that I speak to have never even met a trans person before so to generalize me and my community as ‘confused’ and ‘brainwashed’ is so harmful to so many. It’s deadly. I often speak of my intense fear for other people’s ideas of me. I’m remembering why this fear exists.”

      • Beryl Smith says

        Adam, of all the responses, yours sums up so much of why I support the SPY in this. Thank you for saying what needs to be said.

      • Robin Wood says

        The constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech protects Mr. Montgomery’s right to express his beliefs, and the Klan’s and the Daily Stormer’s, from government censorship. It does not obligate Dave Wheelan to give them space in the Spy, even if we have to read other publications to check where we are or be offended.

        • John Michael Kramer says

          Robin, I concur with you. The first amendment doesn’t require an editor to publish alternate points of view especially hateful one. That the Spy does is its prerogative but such a policy should not be implemented blindly. Montgomery is guilty of hate speech and the Spy was right to pull the article and apologizing for the mistake of publishing it in the first place.

          What would be even better; if Dr. Montgomery would post a retraction…

      • Deirdre LaMotte says

        Thanks Adam. You accurately laid bare the repercussions of hideous speech and the power it has in this community.
        I am left speechless by this man’s columns: his conclusions, his research, his theories are all so base and cruel.
        What is even worse are disreputable people who believe this rubbish. Hate speech is just that .

  7. Jamie Kirkpatrick says

    Bravo, Dave!

  8. Daniel Menefee says

    I’m afraid to say that the personal attacks against the publisher on social media smacks of some of the same intolerance I found in Montgomery’s column. The idea that someone would use the publisher’s orientation against him in his decision to publish is nothing short of reprehensible.

    Op-Eds are the musings of one person, sometimes we agree and sometimes we fall out of our chair at the absolute stupidity of it all. Montgomery’s column should have been a teachable moment and not an opportunity to bash the publisher, who for that last decade has redefined civic engagement in our small town.

    We should know where the ignorance and hate is coming from in our community so we can discuss it and maybe change some minds. But silencing or censoring ignorance doesn’t end ignorance, and it’s actually a service of newspapers to expose it. Newspapers are always going to take heat for distasteful columns. But to sink to personal attacks against the publisher in our tiny community is toxic and hasn’t served anyone. Frankly, I’m disgusted at the knee-jerk mob mentality.

    I agree with Bob Ingersoll that the column should have stayed put. Columns like this help me recalibrate my own moral compass and challenge me to re-evaluate and purge my own bias. We all have bias whether we admit or not, and we have to constantly challenge ourselves, which in an unpleasant way Montgomery’s column does. With the exception of an extra 500 words in his vocabulary, Montgomery is our community’s Archie Bunker. And as a community we should be able to point to this column not as a bad publishing decision but rather an unfortunate sign of the times…AND LEARN FROM IT.

  9. Craig Fuller says

    Thursday…….

    A thoughtful message, but the debate seems to continue on Facebook and elsewhere.

    Here is a message I sent to Adam Goodheart in Chestertown who has taken particular exception to the manner in which this issue has been handled and who has chosen to verbally assault THE SPY and it’s executive editor.

    Adam….not until this morning was I aware of David Montgomery’s recent commentary. Nor was I aware of your strong objection to the content and the fact it was published in THE SPY. Finally, while I never saw the original piece, I have seen the rebuttal.

    I notice from your Facebook page that you are commenting minute by minute as comments are posted to your page. I am sure you take some delight in the fact that the original piece was taken down. You probably take delight that many are now objecting to what they read in THE SPY.

    But, let me offer a few possibilities for consideration because the path you are on may affect a number of us and not in the way you seem to want.

    First…cards on the table: I write commentary for THE SPY. Like others, I neither pay to have something published nor do I get paid when something is published.

    THE SPY benefits from the generosity of people in the communities it serves. Donations, advertising and sponsorship help defray costs. No one makes any sum of money, especially the editor-in-chief, Dave Wheelan.

    You are perfectly within your right to feel outrage about what David Montgomery wrote. However, turning off the goodwill THE SPY has earned could affect all of us who have a platform to share our views thanks to the work of Dave Wheelan. And, that includes you as someone who has been interviewed.

    If diatribe rather than discussion is the form of discourse you choose to attack THE SPY and it’s editor, then it is possible that the author of the very commentary you found so offensive might enjoy a victory of sorts. It surely won’t be a victory for you or your supporters to have the voices of those who write for THE SPY silenced. It will not serve the community’s interests to sacrifice a publication focused daily on the vital causes and fine efforts of community leaders that are so often featured in THE SPY.

    This can’t be what you want.

    But, it is not so clear what you do want.

    In some of your posts on another topic you described how thrilled you were when a post went viral and you pulled it down for the purpose of writing an op-ed that might be picked up by a news organization.

    So, are we looking for clicks?

    If you want to share with THE SPY your constructive views on editorial policy, I for one would be interested.

    If there are topics you believe are too sensitive to be debated, that would be worthy of consideration as well.

    Perhaps you have views on how THE SPY and those associated with it could better serve the community. We’re all ears.

    What I really hope you will consider is how tearing down people and a publication achieve any of your goals for the community in which you live. Oh, and if they do, perhaps you should put your cards on the table.

    Here’s the thing, Dave Wheelan has given many of us a platform for the past decade. Hard work, tenacious pursuit of stories that build what is the best in our community has been his stock in trade. It’s possible that I might not agree with every editorial judgement Dave makes with regard to THE SPY, but no one will ever persuade me that his judgement is made for any reason other than for the good of the community.

    Not only would it be a tragedy to lose such a commitment, I know of no way that it would ever be replaced.

    So, now it’s your turn. That’s the way Facebook works. You get to click and reply. But, take a deep breath and think about the path you are taking us down and where you want us to travel. Your words do matter. Please use them wisely.

  10. Al Sikes says

    I too had not read David’s commentary. And while I was just intending to say ditto to Craig Fuller’s excellent piece I decided to add a few words of my own.

    Dave Wheelan through hard work and considerable sacrifice has given our communities an invaluable media outlet. In my opinion this is the best digital channel of information and commentary in the U.S. If there is a Pulitzer category for community online information and commentary services The Spy should receive one.

    I served as Chairman of the FCC and looked at numerous complaints about what people aired on radio and TV. As time went on I not infrequently put on the impervious cloth of the right to free speech–even when Howard Stern used his show to wish my demise. Stern was virtually the only one to draw a complaint by the Commission. The complaint against Stern was because pre-pubescent boys were in his audience and we had a statutory duty to protect children.

    I hope that the open forum Dave has provided will be comfortable for all views and when disagreement animates, this Reply option will be used. In the old letters to the editor days few were able to express contrary opinions. Not true on The Spy.

  11. Adam Goodheart says

    I have taken down my social media posts and do not plan to make further public comments. I want the following to stand as the record of my views:

    I know the Spy’s publisher, Dave Wheelan, and indeed have always liked and respected him. I know how hard he works, for no personal gain. I have supported the Spy, including financially via the center that I direct at Washington College. The Eastern Shore needs more outlets for journalism and community discussion and we cannot afford to lose this one. The only happiness I have felt through this whole sorry saga was when he took down the original piece and wrote an eloquent and indeed rather courageous statement. I felt proud of Dave. I thought I could return to supporting Dave and the Spy in every possible way.

    And then, sadly, the Spy published a statement by the original writer, David Montgomery, that was just as cruel and gratuitous as the original column.

    People who have read any of my comments should know that I am coming at this most deeply as someone who remembers being a closeted gay teenager in the 1980s. I remember reading in the mainstream press that homosexuals caused AIDS and should be tattooed and put in internment camps. (Yes, that was in the New York Times in 1986.) I remember reading that we were mentally ill, prone to molesting children, and unfit to be teachers. I remember reading articles equating our life partnerships with pedophilia and bestiality. I remember reading that my own country’s leaders in the Reagan Administration were endorsing that bigotry.

    Now, in 2019, I thought those dark and painful days were over, at least in the mainstream press. Then, this week — reading a publication edited by someone I like and respect, in the town where I have worked and taught young people for 17 years — I found out I was wrong.

    I remember how horrible I felt reading those things at age 14 or 15 … how dark and hopeless they made my future seem. And I was lucky: I came from a loving, secular, liberal family and went to a progressive urban private school that embraced diversity. I was gay, white, male, comfortably off, rather than trans, or black, or female, or rural, or poor. I was a well-read kid and I had access to more favorable depictions. I can only imagine how much worse the pain and isolation are for kids from those latter categories, in the more conservative (much, much more conservative) areas of a place like the Eastern Shore, in environments where they are at daily risk of psychological and physical abuse, where even their homes are no shelter from bigotry.

    Even in the homophobic depths of the 1980s, I don’t recall ever reading that we queer kids were at risk of becoming mass murderers if allowed to fully embrace our sexuality.

    That’s where I’m coming from: imagining the very real pain and trauma being inflicted by David Montgomery – and yes, by the Spy — on the most vulnerable members of our community.

    Actually, not just imagining: also hearing it directly from a brave and eloquent young trans person from Kent County, who wrote: “You have to understand the power of words. It’s a privilege to curate the information shared with a community… and the privilege has been abused… and so have I. So many people that I speak to have never even met a trans person before so to generalize me and my community as ‘confused’ and ‘brainwashed’ is so harmful to so many. It’s deadly. I often speak of my intense fear for other people’s ideas of me. I’m remembering why this fear exists.”

    I am in favor of listening respectfully to many voices, including conservative ones, pro-Trump ones, and even ones that oppose LGBTQ rights. But when you allow a well-off, well-educated, privileged person to use a public platform to punch down and attack transgender teenagers — who are among the most vulnerable human beings in our community — that is beyond the pale. It can result in those kids being harmed physically and psychologically by others, or even harming themselves.

    Speech is a right, but publication is a privilege, and publishers are not compelled to disseminate any opinion submitted to them. I worked as an op-ed editor at the New York Times, and I can tell you that if one of its columnists tried to publish a piece like David Montgomery’s, he or she would quite rightly be fired from the paper.

    I don’t want the Spy to die. I don’t want to hurt its thoughtful, smart, and dedicated publisher, who has given a lot to our community. I do want those brave and vulnerable queer kids among us to be safe. They are as important to our community as any publisher, columnist, or advertiser. Yes, even as important as David Montgomery with his fancy CV.

    Words matter. Words hurt — especially when they are published words. The Spy needs to use them more wisely.

  12. Transparency: I am a longtime friend of Wheelan’s and I was a co-founder of Spy, though active in it’s publication only for the first year. I was appalled by Montgomery’s screed. Ditto the gratuitous ad hominem barbs that were sunk into Wheelan’s back. I cannot see how being a gay editor of Spy, something never in the public realm, has anything to do with whether it was right or wrong to publish Montgomery. Finally, a confession: It’s never been revealed throughout a half-century career in journalism, and I never thought I see it in print, because who cares? … but here it is — I am a recidivist heterosexual. There. Now, no matter what I write or publish about “straight” sexuality, I have no worries about being outed by Adam Goodheart.

    • Dave Wheelan, founder and publisher of The Talbot and Chestertown Spy was criticized this week on social media for publishing a piece by David Montgomery, the contents of which offended many people, including us. Rather than respond to Montgomery directly through The Spy’s comments section, some contributors vilified Dave Wheelan publicly. We find such action highly questionable. Challenging Montgomery is reasonable, in fact appropriate, but castigating the publisher of a sound publication which provides a forum for news and opinions is misguided. Social media provides a welcome opportunity for all of us to express our opinions protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but it is not a substitute for good journalism. We support The Spy publications, the founder and publisher and the exercise of rights to free speech.

      Charity and civility go hand in hand. In today’s caustic and fractionated environment when words are weaponized through all forms of media, it’s particularly important for us to be mindful and gracious. In the face of opinions we oppose and even find offensive or hurtful, we can still be charitable. We can also choose not to engage, but if we choose discourse over silence, let us be respectful and civil with a tone that engenders positive feelings, not one driven by fear and antagonism.

      Thanks for reading.

  13. Bill Valentino says

    For some, the Memorial Day weekend represents the commencement of summer. For others, it is a crushing reminder of military friends who didn’t make it home. Our country is imperfect, but there are some things which make us unique and are worth fighting for. Many of my memories are from fifty years ago when some of the privileged protested and avoided military service and the less privileged served in their place. But all of us who either served or demonstrated were protecting Americans’ right to protest as we explored the limits of free speech during that difficult time.

    Our First Amendment is unique among western developed countries and Americans have freer speech than any other people because our freedoms have been defined by the courts and not by our elected officials. Certainly, Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Homes expressed the lack of limits of free speech in his concept of “freedom for the thoughts we hate.”

    In the last few decades, we have seen colleges restrict speech which was deemed offensive to certain groups along with trigger warnings and safe rooms. Lately, however, I notice that the University of California at Berkeley has reversed its policies towards controversial speakers, no longer coddling, but again advocating free speech and openly challenging people to defend their ideas in an open forum. The University of Chicago has long embraced that policy.

    The discussion about what constitutes free speech is continuous and will be debated and litigated in the near term as we address the changing legal landscape in the era of electronic media and the most recent question of whether Julian Assange should still be considered a journalist after giving his assistance to Manning in entering a secure server.

    In every case where there is a restriction of speech, some high-minded – or at least plausible – reason is offered. The banning of David Montgomery’s opinion piece because it makes the publisher and potential young readers uncomfortable doesn’t even come close to the nine or ten categories of unprotected speech under the First Amendment. The publisher’s comment to “do no harm” may apply to the medical profession. It hardly applies to the restriction of speech under the First Amendment.

    A debate over David Montgomery’s opinions would provide valuable information to your readers, a subject few of us know anything about. For example, I have read that Johns Hopkins, once the national leader in transgender surgery, stopped the procedure for 38 years but just recently resumed again. Along the same lines while the country debates admitting transgender service members into the military, is it true that people who undergo transgender surgery are 20 times more likely to commit suicide than the population at large? Is any of this true? The questions raised by David Montgomery should be openly debated in your publication and you should invite commentators to address them. Furthermore, I don’t see how providing truthful information which may refute common misunderstandings is in any way unsupportive of the gay community.

    I no longer support publications or colleges for that matter which don’t fully support the First Amendment. Either we have a system where unpopular ideas are openly debated or a system where publishers or elected officials ban the speech they dislike when their turn to govern comes.

  14. John Moag says

    Who is the best beneficiary of Mr. Montgomery’s article? It’s Adam Goodheart’s trans friend. He wasn’t spared the bad and is probably buoyed by the benefit of the good.

    Today we try to protect our children and students to an extent that it’s harmful. In recent years, we’ve had an enormous increase in suicide (especially among young men) who kill themselves for the most minor of challenges to the cocoon they have relied on. I’m glad Adam’s friend read the Montgomery article and that he has seen the response. That’s a real education.

    Thanks to the publisher (but not for pulling the Montgomery piece.). In the 1970s,he became my first and and oldest gay friend who has schooled me well. A champion of free speech and giving back to Chestertown.

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