Opinion: ‘What are our rights when we are offended?’

In light of the reaction to the controversial Facebook post made by Camas High School Principal Liza Sejkora, Editor Ken Vance asks what is appropriate?

Some of you may know, but many of you may not. My 32-year career in the media industry has not only included extensive work in the newspaper industry but I also spent many years working in radio, specifically as an on-air sports talk radio host.

During a period of that time in my career, I had the privilege to work on air with Colin Cowherd, who has gone on to an extremely successful radio and television career with ESPN and now FOX Sports.

I believe Colin was the first between us to make the statement that you don’t have the right to be offended about anything at any time you want to be. I forget Colin’s exact words, and that’s why I’m not quoting him. But, he said something to that effect and I immediately agreed with him. That was likely about 20 years ago.

I don’t believe Colin or I could ever imagine how the world would evolve since the day we first had that conversation. We have become a society of people who, in my opinion, are incredibly easily offended, and always willing to express that on social media with a sense of entitlement that astounds me.

Unfortunately, Cowherd likely realized that cultural evolution on June 24, 2015 when ESPN announced he would no longer appear on their airwaves due to a comment he made that offended many.

Cowherd had said that he didn’t believe Major League Baseball was complex, saying a third of the sport was from the Dominican Republic, which had “not been known, in my lifetime, as having, you know, world-class academic abilities.” He later issued an apology and an explanation but ESPN still made the decision to remove him. It should be pointed out, however, that he had announced a week earlier that he was leaving ESPN to pursue other opportunities so their decision to take him off the air seemed a bit punitive to me and many others.

I’m not going to speak for Colin, he’s very capable of doing that for himself. But, I will say that I, for the most part, am of the same mindset. I’ve grown weary of someone, somewhere being offended by something, seemingly at the drop of a hat. However, I will explain myself.

I believe we each have the right to be offended. We each have our own value system and comfort level with things we come in contact with. Essentially, the issue usually boils down to free speech.

For example, a week ago I was having dinner and watching a Portland Trail Blazers game in an area restaurant/bar that is known, among other things, for its karaoke and live music. When I go there (largely due to the food, including the Happy Hour menu), I almost always sit in the exact same booth, facing away from the music stage and toward a television the servers are always willing to turn to the channel playing my game of choice.

I enjoy listening to good music and the karaoke performances in this establishment are usually of at least a moderate level in terms of quality. On this particular night, there were two karaoke performances that interrupted my viewing of the Blazers game. First, a man belted out his version of Journey’s “Faithfully,’’ that was amazingly well done. I literally had to scoot out of my booth so I could turn fully around to witness him belt out the song with his amazing vocals. Everyone in the place was in awe.

After his performance, I went back to watching my game, only to become more than a little disturbed a short time later when another performer began singing lyrics to a song I had, thankfully, never heard before. This song contained the most vulgar language I had ever heard, in public or otherwise. Now, I will say, language usually doesn’t offend me. I love going to comedy clubs and I’ve heard things out of the mouths of comedians that would make loggers blush. That said, I was literally amazed at what I was hearing and I kept looking around the establishment to see if I was the only one offended. For the most part, it appeared that I was alone in my disgust. No other patron or patrons were showing any signs of being offended.

I sat there trying to decide what to do. I really wanted to say something to someone. I know who the owner/manager is and if he had been there, I would have politely said something to him. I wanted to ask him if he was comfortable with that in his establishment. Instead, I paid my check a short time later and just left quietly. This is the first time I’ve mentioned it to anyone. 

I will say that we all do have the right to be offended. We get to establish our own values and we shouldn’t be forced to endure speech or anything else that offends us. That said, what are our rights when we are offended? What is a fair response to being offended? Here’s where it gets more than just a little contentious. 

Obviously, in my example, there was an easy solution. If I didn’t like what I was exposed to in that restaurant/bar, I could just leave. Nobody was forcing me to dine there. Who am I to try to dictate what songs they allow to be performed in their establishment? 

What about other situations? If I’m listening to the radio, or watching television, I can easily turn the dial or change the channel when I’m offended. What if I’m offended by something an elected official says or does? I have the right to attempt to recall them from office or I can wait until the next election and vote for their opponent. Do I have the right to take it to other extremes?

It gets a little trickier when we talk about being offended in the workplace. I’ve always suggested that if you work at McDonald’s and you don’t like any terms of your employment, or anything happening in your workplace, you are free to go across the street and work at Burger King.

What if it’s an employer using public funds? What if the offender is a school administrator? By now, you’ve likely heard about the story of Camas High School Principal Liza Sejkora, who has been placed on administrative leave following criticism over comments she made immediately following the Feb. 26 death of Kobe Bryant and eight others, including his daughter Gianna, in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. Sejkora wrote the following on her Facebook page:

“Not gonna lie. Seems to me that Karma caught up with a rapist today,’’ Sejkora wrote.

Within an hour or two, Sejkora removed the post, which was in reference to a 2003 incident in which Bryant faced rape charges involving a 19-year-old woman. The charges were eventually dropped, and the Los Angeles Lakers’ all-star settled out of court a lawsuit filed by the woman.

Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell placed Sejkora on administrative leave Tuesday while the district assesses what to do next. Sejkora obviously offended many with her Facebook post. It’s been said on social media that her post was the result of emotions she still copes with that are the result of a personal experience. She apologized and attempted to take accountability in a video interview conducted by Lacamas Magazine Editor Ernie Geigenmiller.

What is an appropriate outcome for Sejkora’s post? Should she lose her job? In my opinion, she shouldn’t lose her job because her Facebook post offended others. However, while watching her respond to Geigenmiller’s questions in the video interview, I couldn’t help but ask myself how can this person ever successfully lead this group of students in the future? She has asked the students for forgiveness, the same forgiveness she herself couldn’t find in her heart for Bryant. If the students, parents and members of the Camas community can forgive and move on, I applaud them. I would be in awe of their ability to do that.

About The Author

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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