Well, it happened again. First it was the Mexicans. Now it’s the lesbians.
This week, for the second time since the launch of Weld last August, we were asked to remove our publication from a local place of business. Actually, to tell the whole truth, it was removed for us, not from the business itself, but from the public sidewalk in front of said business; but that is a matter I deem not worth contesting in this case.
To fill the reader in a bit, I arrived at our office Monday morning — piping fresh cup of coffee in hand, energized by an exceedingly pleasant weekend and eager to meet the working week head-on — to find an email from the proprietor, forwarded to me by our editor. The email advised politely that our paper box would be held on the premises, presumably out of public sight, until we could send someone to retrieve it.
Although we enjoy your paper from time to time, the message read in part, we have a policy of no solicitation. You may want to check with some of our neighboring businesses. Kindest regards….
Now, I don’t want to make too much of this, not least because the management of a given establishment has a perfect right to decide which, if any, publications might be made available to their patrons, clients or visitors. Obviously, I’d just as soon never be told that Weld is not — or, more correctly here, is no longer — welcome in someone’s place of business. But I am resigned to the fact that, hopefully on rare occasions, it is going to happen.
As part of its founding mission, Weld is committed to providing public-interest journalism and writing of substance and nuance on issues and topics that affect our community, our state and our nation. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, that means that at least some of the content of our publication — and on our website, weldbham.com — is going to be viewed in at least some quarters as highly provocative, or even controversial. This means, in turn, that there are going to be business owners who conclude that certain of their clientele may be offended by certain content, rather than engaged, challenged or perhaps even enlightened by it.
Indeed, they may hear from customers themselves that some particular story, or even the cover of our publication, is objectionable, and decide to adhere to the time-honored business maxim that the customer is always right (even if the number of complaints represents only a small fraction of people who frequent their establishment; proof, perhaps, of another old adage, something about squeaky wheels). Notwithstanding the relative rightness or wrongness of such objections, I cannot rightfully take issue with private business decisions, unless they infringe on someone’s rights — in which case they are newsworthy and Weld at least implicitly obligated to take interest. In any case, unless asked, I would never presume to tell someone whose business has been successful for years what he or she should or shouldn’t do in response to comments from patrons.
The only thing that really bothers me about this thing is roughly the same thing that bothered me last fall, the first instance in which Weld was kicked out of a business establishment. In each case, the reason given for asking that we no longer distribute our paper in that location was a transparent falsehood, fabricated to avoid having to tell us that someone — or, to be fair, perhaps several someones — found something in, or about, a particular issue of Weld that offended them.
As I alluded at the beginning of this column, the first instance was related to our coverage of and commentary on HB56, the draconian anti-immigrant law enacted by the Alabama Legislature last summer. At least that’s what we think, as the most we could get out of management in the way of an explanation was that someone took offense at the term Mexican, as in the title of “Ask a Mexican,” the syndicated column we run each week; they were not mollified by our explanation that the author of the column, Gustavo Arellano, is in fact a Mexican-American.
Similarly, this latest occurrence came with no satisfactory justification. Since we are a free weekly newspaper that isn’t making an effort to sell anything to our readers — other than the goods and services offered by our paid advertisers — the “policy of no solicitation” doesn’t hold much water. That’s particularly true since we have been “soliciting” from that particular location since receiving permission to do so at the time of our launch.
That fact, along with the polite tone of regret that attended the email from the proprietor (“you may want to check with some of our neighboring businesses”) and the highly public nature of the business, led us to the unavoidable conclusion that it all had something to do with our cover last week, which in acknowledgement of a photography exhibit currently up at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, featured a lesbian couple in a casual embrace — and, presumably, the article about the exhibit, which showcases lesbian families.
This is regrettable, of course, and one could, I suppose, despair over such instances, which serve to highlight the distance we have yet to travel on the road to tolerance, compassion and understanding. Or one could do something else altogether, which is to celebrate the many fine businesses who take the trouble to tell us that they are proud to have Weld on their premises, and the many fine readers who tell us that they are proud to be able to read it. Besides, if, as was mentioned in the email to us, the business owner remains a reader of Weld — even if only “from time to time” — I’m prepared to live with that trade-off.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.