Last semester, a controversy arose after the Torch printed a Letter to the Editor that questioned the place of a Hindu Students Association in a Catholic University.
Writing about faith and spirituality is a very sensitive area which could easily lead to students being offended. And indeed, that was the outcome, as many St. John’s students of all faiths were upset by the letter.
Such a response was understandable, considering the subject matter and the message of the letter. Hindu students felt that their religion was being insulted or judged inferior to the Christian faith of the University. Some even felt threatened by the words, fearing that other readers might take the letter as a call to remove Hindu students from the campus.
While the message of the letter could certainly be called questionable and offensive, part of the response by students came as somewhat of a surprise. That is, the negative backlash against the Torch itself.
Some students complained that such a letter should never have been allowed to print. Some asked why members of the Torch would write something like that. Others wondered how the University could allow such a letter to run in its own school paper.
However, all of these complaints show a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Torch is run. There also seemed to be some confusion about the status of Letters to the Editor versus articles written by Torch staff.
The most important point to stress is that the Torch is an independent newspaper. The University does not run the paper, nor do they determine what does or does not print. That said, the Torch does not go out of its way to print incendiary articles or letters. In fact, the Torch has a set of rules dictating what can and should be printed for both articles and letters.
That set of rules is the editorial policy of the Torch. For opinion articles, written by members of the Torch staff, writers are allowed to voice their own opinions (whether or not that is the opinion of the editorial board of the Torch). However, if an article is found to be offensive or not backed by any tangible facts at all, then it will not be printed.
But the controversy from last semester concerns not an article, but a Letter to the Editor, which was written by a student who has no affiliation with the Torch.
Letters fall under a different category, as they are the thoughts and opinions of students who do not write for the Torch. Letters are printed at the letter writer’s expense, meaning that the Torch will not censor their words, but is not accountable for them either.
That letter, though offensive, was the opinion of a student at St. John’s, and not the opinion of the Torch or the University. The validity of that opinion is for the reader to decide. It would not be right for the Torch to decide which letters to print with the same stringent code as for its own articles because the whole purpose of Letters to the Editor is to give any student the opportunity to voice his opinion.
Students who disagreed with that one student’s opinion were welcome to write a response explaining their thoughts on the subject. In fact, the following week featured responses to the very letter in question.
This is the reason that newspapers of all kinds feature Letters to the Editor. It allows readers to discuss their ideas in an open forum. That way, a university or community as a whole can recognize issues that need to be addressed or explained.
The questioning of another’s faith could certainly have been a point of division between students. Instead, it gave the University an opportunity to explain its open stance on religious diversity. It also allowed both Hindu and Christian students to voice their shared belief in religious diversity at St. John’s.
The Torch firmly believes that the Hindu Students Association is an integral part of the University, and adds to St. John’s most valuable asset: its rich cultural and spiritual diversity.
If anything, last semester’s controvercial letter has inspired the Torch to spotlight various faiths in future issues, all in the hopes of raising awareness and knowledge of the important religions and faith-based organizations that make St. John’s the amazingly diverse campus that it is.