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August 2020
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On freedom of speech, media access

By Dan Pool, Editor

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With Facebook booting seven well-known firebrands, issues like freedom of speech and freedom of the press have taken a higher profile in the national discourse this week.

Facebook’s decision to ban accounts like Louis Farrakhan, Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos put on a national stage the thorny, open-to-debate decisions that editors of newspapers have been dealing with all the way back to Benjamin Franklin with his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729: how to handle the contributions of people who have extreme opinions. Here are a couple of musings from this humble community editor.

At the Progress and with most other newspaper people I know (and I suspect with behemoths like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube), the first mission which occupies most of your energy is simply getting your product out to readers. For a workflow the last thing you need is to get into a prolonged debate over a couple of sentences in someone’s letter or opinion piece. I strongly suspect reading the accounts of Facebook’s decision that for the past year or so they were hoping the situation would just go away and they could get back to making billions and expanding their product ever-deeper into people’s lives.

At the Progress when election time rolls around our chief aim, contrary to what many feel about media bias, is to make sure we get the candidates’ names spelled correctly, the date of the election correct and that we don’t mix up quotes. Frankly, that takes most of a community newspaper’s time when politics gets heated. 

A couple of points I’d like to clarify that are often fired like inaccurate Scud missiles regard freedom of speech and freedom of the press, both found in the First Amendment but not always understood.

Both are freedoms OF, neither are freedoms TO. Freedom of speech is exactly what the phrase says, you are free to say whatever you want. You can go tell everyone you want. You can hand out hundreds of flyers. You can create a website. You can yell it from the courthouse lawn. However, it doesn’t mean a newspaper has to print it, nor does it mean a social media company has to allow it on their servers. There is no freedom to the press. I have had several angry people over the years claim we were violating their freedom of speech because we wouldn’t publish something. I had one person become indignant that we wouldn’t run her extremely long story in its entirety – as though there is a constitutional right in America to have anything you write printed.

The chief at Twitter summarized the confusion over this and social media by musing in a podcast that they are somewhere between “a public square” where conversations happen unfiltered and a service with user agreements. In the end, they do have the right to kick someone off their company’s service – just like a bar can kick out an unruly drunk.

As a sidenote, freedom of the press means that newspapers can operate without harassment by government intervention. It has no bearing at all on someone having their letter to the editor printed.

That being said, it’s rare, very rare that the Progress declines to run something and never because we simply disagree with it. I have had numerous people over the years claim their writings would be too hot for us to print, to which the reply is “try us.” Think about it this way, print something that creates a lot of controversy, stirs people up and sells a lot of newspapers. I can’t imagine any editor not chomping at the bit for that.

Our general philosophy is to be as inclusive as possible of all views in this community and at the same time reject letters that contain blatant inaccuracies in fact – regardless of opinion.

We are committed to seeing all views expressed, even those we may find distasteful, and at the same time recognize our place as a community newspaper and our content should be fit to print. Not an easy path to navigate but nothing that hasn’t been challenging newspapers for 300 years.