Occasionally, we’ll get a complaint from someone whose letter was rejected for the Voices page and who believes that newspapers are obligated to print everything they receive. We evil people in the opinion section are obviously censoring them and infringing on their rights, and they will sue us, by God.
Except that’s not what’s happening.
We are still evil, though … as long as evil means snarky and constantly begging for chocolate. In that vein, let’s answer a few questions.
Why are you censoring me? I demand that you print my letter detailing the fact that you are a scaly purple alien from the planet Ferenginar!
First of all, the First Amendment protects you and the press from censorship by the government. Not printing a letter claiming that I’m a scaly purple alien from Ferenginar is not censorship, but is instead adherence to journalistic standards of truth and accuracy since I’m neither scaly nor purple.
Occasional eczema and a love of purple clothing does not an alien make.
Besides, the Ferengi are more orange-y, with large ears and a passion for unfettered capitalism (wait … is John Boehner a Ferengi??).
You know you can’t refuse to print my letter, don’t you? Otherwise you’re trampling all over my freedom of the press!
Actually, as a private company (not state-owned media), a newspaper can refuse to publish letters, columns, ads, etc., if they don’t meet its standards. If the government was doing it, that would be something else entirely.
And no, your freedom of the press is not being violated. We in the mainstream media have freedom of the press; the public, which includes regular citizens, cable television, talk radio, and bloggers, have freedom of speech. (But wait … I’m in the mainstream media and a blogger … oooh …)
In Miami Herald v. Tornillo in 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a newspaper was not obligated to provide equal space to political candidates responding to editorial commentary, and overturned the Florida law that mandated it. The unanimous decision written by Justice William Brennan ruled that the state law compelling equal space was an “intrusion into the function of editors. A newspaper is more than a passive receptacle or conduit for news, comment, and advertising. The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and treatment of public issues and public officials—whether fair or unfair—constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment.”
So we get to do our jobs (yea)! Hey, editors gotta edit.
I can say whatever I want, thanks to the First Amendment. Why would you even dare to keep me from getting my message out?
Uhhh … not really.
Like all amendments, there are limits to what you can do; libel (written), slander (spoken), and “fighting words” are just a few examples of expression not protected by the First Amendment. It’s true that you can say just about anything, but if it’s false or inciteful (as opposed to insightful), you wouldn’t be protected from the consequences of saying it. And in this litigious society, not just you but the media that repeated it could be sued.
And we don’t have much love for lawsuits.
But newspapers have even more freedom, right?
In some ways, the press does have more protection under the First Amendment, but also more responsibilities, one of which is to prevent libel being printed. But hey, if you just really want to libel someone (because you’re bored, crazy, whatever), make sure you pick the right person. In libel suits, public-figure plaintiffs have a higher burden of proof, most often centering around the intent of the writer/editor/publisher—whether it was done with knowledge the information was false, if there was malice, etc. Private individuals mostly just have to prove the published information isn’t true.
So if you call your neighbor a doody-head in public, you should have a good lawyer on speed-dial. While you’re at it, scrounge up a thesaurus or a Shakespeare compendium because you clearly need better insults.
You must print what I wrote about a letter-writer who’s married to someone I don’t like. My lawyer told me that since she wrote a letter, she’s a public figure!
Nope, and any lawyer who would tell you that’s kosher probably got his license out of a gumball machine (do they still make those?). If all it took for someone to be a public figure is to have a letter printed in the newspaper, there’d be an awful lot of public figures out there. Legally, a public figure is someone like a government official, celebrity, business leader or sports hero; the average Joe Schmo (or wife of Joe Schmo) doesn’t qualify. And if your letter has nothing to do with what was written and is instead simply a personal attack, that’s not happening anyway.
I’m mean like that.
Despite claims to the contrary, we live in a country with many more freedoms than places like Burma (or Myanmar … our house style at the paper is still Burma), where you can be imprisoned for mocking the military online, as two activists were last week.
In much of the Middle East, you can still be imprisoned for blasphemy (insulting religion). The last conviction for blasphemy in the U.S.—of atheist activist Charles Lee Smith—was in 1928 in Arkansas (yea, us?). Blasphemy laws are still on the books in some states, but are rarely enforced and have been judged to violate the First Amendment.
Even with all our freedoms, we still must act responsibly or face the consequences. So if we reject a letter, rarely is it because we don’t like you; sometimes it’s because we don’t like being sued.
All the chocolate in the world won’t make that better.