Letter from the editor | Matters of opinion

· December 5, 2013, 10:15 pm   ·  Updated December 5, 2013, 11:55 pm

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Every semester, a dozen or so students fill The Daily Pennsylvanian’s Opinion section with their weekly and biweekly columns. The DP Editorial Board selects these columnists based on sample columns and a few sentences on what they’d do with a regular 750 words and an audience of 40,000. The selection process is anonymous — editors don’t know the identities of selected columnists until after deliberations are completed.

This fall, College junior Clarissa O’Conor was one of those columnist applicants. Her columns were well-written, communicated a strong opinion and captured the reader’s attention; they easily landed her in the top crop of applicants.

There was only one potential concern that editors raised — Clarissa wanted to write about her study abroad experience in Palestine, and her opinions fell on one extreme end of the conversation.

There’s nothing wrong with having a strong opinion. A strong opinion backed with facts and sound logic is exactly what we look for in a columnist. The concern with Clarissa’s column arose because her strong opinion is on a topic that — moreso than abortion, American politics, affirmative action or gun control — strikes a particular chord with the Penn community.

We’ve received no shortage of phone calls, guest letters and emails about Clarissa’s column the past semester. They’ve ranged from folks expressing curiosity or concern to outrage and disgust toward our decision. People care passionately and personally about Israel and Palestine. We respect that, and we’ve taken care to respond and explain our train of thought.

Many readers’ concerns lay with Clarissa’s rhetoric. She uses terms like “settler-colonialism,” “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe Israel’s actions toward Palestine. Readers have found her columns too broadly general or offensive — some have even gone as far to call it hate speech. We have worked carefully with Clarissa on all of her columns, sat with student leaders and discussed deliberately among ourselves the merits of Clarissa’s columns. We do not think her writing rises to the level of hate speech.

Short of embedding one of our reporters as a student foreign correspondent in the Middle East, there’s a limited amount of truth-finding we can do with the much-debated facts Clarissa writes. A Google search confirms that there indeed was a raid in Abu Dis two weeks ago, for example, but was it an Israeli raid? Was it provoked by al-Quds University students? Is one side or the other to blame at all? This is beyond what a Google search and a newspaper staffed by students a continent and an ocean away in Philadelphia can divine.

We made the decision to publish Clarissa’s column because of her qualifications as a writer and the different perspective she brings to a heavily debated issue. Whether her readers — or even her editors — agree with her does not influence our decision. The alternative to publishing Clarissa’s column would have been to reject her application because her views strayed too far from the norm on campus.

The DP is a platform for all Penn students, including the reader who might not be as well-versed on Israel and Palestine as the student leaders of pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli and pro-Israeli/Palestinian dialogue groups. For that Penn student, Clarissa’s column offers another perspective on a topic where facts and opinions are frequently inseparable. We believe our decision to select Clarissa as a columnist this semester has brought a different voice to the discussion.

Jennifer Sun is the executive editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. She can be reached at sun@thedp.com

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