For more than five years, Salt Lake Underground Magazine (SLUG) has featured an uncensored and often unapologetic column written by an unnamed police officer called Ask a Cop. The phantom police officer uses the shield of anonymity to dish on issues of the day without reverting to the sanitized cop-speak so often heard from law enforcement in press conferences or public statements. While the voice of the Cop is often harsh, in SLUG's January 2015 issue, the Cop managed to insult a number of SLUG readers while commenting on the topic of police use of deadly force.
In the column, a question was posed by a "Lizardhand Gomorrah" who asked the Cop, "Why are cops still using weapons and tactics that kill people?" rather than using Tasers to stun them.
The anonymous officer responded pointedly, saying people still die after being Tasered. The column went on to eulogize two officers killed in the line of duty in 2013 and demanded to know where Lizardhand and Rev. Al Sharpton (a civil-rights activist) were when those two cops were killed. "Cops die every day," the Cop said.
Activist and former City Weekly reporter Jesse Fruhwirth, an outspoken critic of police violence and brutality, joined other SLUG readers on Facebook and Twitter to blast SLUG and demand the cancelation of the column.
"The recent column from your anonymous cop writer flippantly justifying recent murders by police is appalling, and your silly defense of it in the face of criticism shows you're in way over your heads," said Fruhwirth in a Facebook post.
Fruhwirth declined to be interviewed for this story.
SLUG Magazine Editor Angela Brown said that she will not apologize, delete or discontinue the column. "Silencing peoples' voices because it's not the one you want to hear—that's dangerous," Brown says. "That's why, ultimately, we can't take down the column."
Brown confirmed that the original illustrator of the column's graphic, Steve Thueson, has asked that his artwork no longer be used with the column, and a band slated to play at Localized, a monthly SLUG-supported concert, has pulled out.
Activists claim the magazine has been irresponsible with its freedom of speech.
"Asking someone to use their free speech differently than they have been is not counter to free speech, per se," said Fruhwirth in a post. "That's not cutting off someone's free speech, it's just asking them to publish responsibly." He went on to say that if SLUG doesn't comply, readers can also use their free speech to boycott the magazine—something that's already happening.
On Twitter, Fruhwirth criticized those who use "freedom of speech" to favor the voices of the "elites." In another tweet, he argued, "Free speech absolutism/fetishism is an intellectual disease of the center-left primarily." On Facebook, Fruhwirth called on SLUG to replace the column with Ask an Abolitionist.
One of the original indignant readers, Madison Donnelly, did receive a direct response from SLUGto her comments on social media. It said, "As with all of our writers, the cop's point of view does not necessarily reflect those of the SLUG staff or other contributors. However, we thought it was important not to censor his response, and it is our policy not to censor the opinions of our contributors."
As an olive branch, SLUG edited four particularly inflammatory words with strike-throughs, for transparency. Brown says she set up a one-on-one meeting with Donnelly on Jan. 17. Instead, Brown says, she was met by Donnelly and nearly a dozen of Donnelly's colleagues at Nobrow Coffee Werks.
"It was like walking into a lion's den," Brown says. "Everybody took their turn telling me how much they hated me, and what a horrible person I am. They called me racist and misogynist. It seriously traumatized me for the day."
The group meeting lasted for an hour, Brown said, and after everyone left, Fruhwirth stayed and the two had a more level-headed discussion. "I feel like he and I had the conversation that I was hoping to have with Madison, where by the end of it, we could respect each other's opinion, and we could agree to disagree," Brown says. Donnelly declined to comment.
Brown says she has no plans to let boycotters influence her decision to keep the column. "It's a dangerous road to go down, when you start succumbing to this mob mentality, to changing our journalistic values based on a handful of angry people."