Jeff Clark, the editor of Stomp and Stammer, a scrappy monthly music ‘zine in Atlanta, has never been afraid to piss off readers. The subtitle of his column is "the ramblings of an editor out of control." He even warns readers, "Get ready to fire out that hate mail!" One verbal mauling inspired the guitarist of the heavy metal band Mastodon to slam Clark's head into the window of a local dive bar. Another group, Attractive Eighties Women, dedicated a song to the critic: “Jeff Clark is a shithead. He’s an asshole. He’s a goddamn son of a bitch. He don’t like our band. Well, guess what? We don’t like HIM!"
Still, nothing matched the reaction to a short paragraph, barely longer than an inch, on page four of the January edition of Stomp and Stammer. Under the caption "Most Overdone Memorial," the blurb addressed the "posthumous deification" of Ria Pell, a beloved restaurant owner and local celebrity whose sudden death in November was marked by a funeral procession attended by thousands of Atlantans:
She was a nice woman who opened a restaurant that helped revitalize a stretch of Memorial Drive. She was also unhealthy and met with an early death. Had she not been lesbian, had she been a straight woman or man, we would have seen but a fraction of the reaction. Instead, she was unrealistically elevated into something she wasn't: a symbolic figure.
Crass and insensitive, it was a typical Clark put-down. Yet within hours of the issue hitting stands in local bars and record stores, someone posted a screenshot online. A friend of Pell's set up a Facebook group, "Boycott Stomp and Stammer And All Who Advertise There." Its mission statement: "The tasteless, nasty, disgusting, and hate filled article that Jeff Clark saw fit to write and publish will not be tolerated by the Atlanta Community!'"
And so began a social-media campaign to obliterate the city’s last print music 'zine, a meager freebie with a circulation of 15,000. Within 24 hours, an online page devoted to Pell published a list of Stomp & Stammer’s advertisers and their phone numbers. The Drunken Unicorn, a live music venue, pulled its monthly ad, stating that while in the past it had respected its writers’ rights to their opinions, "what was written about Ria is not appropriate in any context.” The manager of the Starlight Drive-In, which distributes the 'zine in its snack bars, dumped several stacks on the curb, informing Clark he had 24 hours to pick them up before they were tossed in a dumpster. By the time Clark issued an apology, admitting his words were "shitty," boycotters were threatening violence, even discussing using copies of the 'zine to construct and then burn a papier-mâché effigy of its editor. Atlanta Magazine pronounced: "Jeff Clark may be the most hated man in Atlanta today."
Often when these spats break out online, the half-life of offense is brief: Everyone vents for a day or two, rages against the offender, then forgets about it and moves on. That was not the case for Stomp and Stammer, a scrappy shoestring publication that relies on ads from small local businesses. With substantial crossover between its readers and those mourning Pell—many of her friends advertise in the 'zine and patronize stores that distribute it—the boycott threatens to shut down the magazine. About a third of the its regular advertisers—popular bars and venues, including Drunken Unicorn, The Basement, The Highlander, and Twain's—have withdrawn ads from the February edition. Some vow never to advertise again, while others are adopting a more tentative approach. Meanwhile, Stomp and Stammer is working to secure new funding.
As Clark struggles to save a magazine he's built over 17 years, largely because of one paragraph, some Atlantans find themselves grappling with whether the punishment fits the crime. "Is the Ria Pell post, and other assorted gripes, worth the continued effort to extinguish S&S?" asked local television journalist, Doug Richards.
It's not that Clark didn't deserve criticism. It's that the bandwagon of indignation was so swift and vengeful—the intent being to destroy his livelihood, his magazine.
There is no inalienable right to publish an irreverent magazine. The Constitution protects only against government sanctions, not those by advertisers or employers. But it's worth asking what, if anything, we gain by attempting to silence those who offend us. Boycotters argue that they have every right to express disapproval of, and withdraw support from, a publication they disagree with. That's true. Yet while some boycotters describe their actions as "persuasion," others are clearly intent on silencing Jeff Clark.
Such a penalty is disproportionate to the crime, while also investing his words with more power than they deserve. Clark’s words were asinine, but they did not oppress anyone. Furthermore, enforcing silence doesn't just prevent people like Clark from voicing unpopular viewpoints, thereby narrowing the parameters of free expression—it robs the audience of its ability to decide. In Clark's case, some campaigners didn't stop at withdrawing their own support or appealing to advertisers to stop funding Stomp and Stammer. They threatened to stop doing business with advertisers if they did not comply. A small group of people, with no hesitation, took on the role of gatekeepers for the entire community.
While some boycotters present themselves as crusaders for social justice, relating their tactics back to the civil rights tradition, there is a notable difference: previous boycotts worked to extend collective freedoms, whereas today's campaigns focus on restricting individual speech. Those who appeal to advertisers to stop funding Stomp and Stammer appear to have no objective beyond "shut up." They are more preoccupied with limiting what people can say than freeing anyone from oppression.
Some claim these dustups reflect changing social attitudes toward homosexuality—namely, increased support of gay rights. But that falls short of explaining the breadth of hypersensitivity in the world today. In the U.S., feminists successfully campaigned to shut down a pick-up artist's Kickstarter site. British students banned Robin Thicke's hit pop song, "Blurred Lines," from college campuses across the country on the grounds that it's "rapey." And the French government has charged Bob Dylan with "incitement to hatred" for a comment he made about Croatian history. These are just a few examples, of course, but they indicate the growing ritual of offense-taking, where the end goal is to silence the alleged offender.
In the case of Stomp and Stammer, even those who have withdrawn support have mixed feelings, or are reconsidering their approach. Jim Stacy, a local restaurant owner, TV show host, and close friend of Pell's left the online boycott group after 24 hours, deciding that some boycotters had become as bad, if not worse, than Clark. Although he vows he will not advertise in the magazine again, he hopes it does not close. Instead, he would prefer to see Clarke "reassess what it is he stands for." Another business owner, record-shop owner Don Radcliffe, pulled his ad from the February edition, but is open to advertising again—if the magazine evolves. How exactly, he isn't sure. "I don't necessarily expect the tone of the magazine to change. I don't know if Stomp and Stammer will ever change completely." Amid all this discussion, weeks after setting up the online boycott group, Pell's wife posted a message saying her group was no longer advocating boycotting the advertisers—just Stomp and Stammer itself.
One of the frustrations of this debate is that both sides claim to be promoting tolerance. For boycotters, tolerance means silencing of unacceptable views to promote a plural, hate-free society. For their critics, tolerance means a willingness to be exposed to dissenting views that many find distasteful or downright offensive. Your perspective, ultimately, comes down to how you think words affect society. Does suppressing speech create more fairness? Or should we allow full expression, articulating our disagreements, confident that the best ideas will win out?