Wednesday, April 7, 2010

That messy First Amendment

Originally published in the Post Register in 2004.
I'm with you on the free press. It's the newspapers I can't stand."

- From Tom Stoppard's play "Night and Day"
It's pretty easy to support the lofty ideal of free speech in the abstract.

Putting the principle into practice isn't so simple.

There's no secret manual on free speech. Obviously, newspapers are unabashed First Amendment supporters, but that leaves much unresolved.

What does free speech really mean? Is it no holds barred? What degree of civility should we impose on those who write for us, whether they work for us or not? How strict should our filtering process be?

There are no easy answers.

Some folks would prefer that we sift out any disturbing images, controversial opinions or material that to some is divisive or otherwise unsettling.

Others are comfortable sorting through diverse material on their own.

As recent history reminds us, the Post Register is a frequent target for criticism on its own pages. If we were to insist on a more civil public debate, it's reasonable to assume that we'd start by restricting negative comments about us. Instead, we choose to honor the long history of lively, unrestrained, even occasionally divisive debate. Indeed, we celebrate the process. We acknowledge that it sometimes ruffles some feathers (including ours).

We believe that in such a dynamic environment, people of goodwill are more than capable of making intelligent, informed decisions.

We know that the pages of this newspaper occasionally contain columns, stories, guest commentaries or even letters to the editor with a hard edge or a provocative sense of humor, some written by our employees and many not. Some readers find this disturbing or even offensive. This is not our intent.

Our role on these occasions is to make the newspaper available to widely divergent views. Sometimes the aim of the writer is imprecise, and for those near-misses we apologize.

Perhaps the greatest test is what each of us chooses to do when someone else exercises his or her freedom of speech.

"The right to be heard," said former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, "does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously."

Pointed public debate is hardly a new phenomenon. Perhaps the nastiest presidential campaign in our history was between incumbent John Adams and challenger Thomas Jefferson in 1800, which included language shocking even by today's standards. The country ultimately benefited from the passionate debate that preceded the election, divisive though it may have been.

To their true credit, these two great men never fully reconciled their philosophical differences but mended their friendship, renewing a correspondence that continued until their nearly simultaneous deaths on July 4, 1826.

The lessons? That the unfettered exchange of views has a high purpose. That the passions of the moment can be overcome. That stifling free speech in the name of political correctness or unity is a temptation to be avoided.

Yes, we endorse a reasonable level of civility and restraint. But if the choice is between messy free speech and tidy muzzled speech, give us the former.

No comments:

Post a Comment