COLUMN: Free Screech

Harry Caines contributes a weekly column to CacheValleyDaily.com. Harry is a resident of Logan and an alumnus of Utah State University. He can be reached via email at hacaines@gmail.com. His column is a work of opinion, and does not reflect the views of Cache Valley Daily, the Cache Valley Media Group, or its employees. 

<em>“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”</em>

—attributed to Voltaire, but actually scribed by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

My editor does not like when I take shots at the Herald-Journal in this space. As a guideline, he has told me not to do so, unless it was on a subject that simply could not be avoided.

He runs cachevalleydaily.com. He decides what goes up and what does not. I abide by the standards set forth or I go elsewhere with my opinions.

Thems the rules.

This is also an exercise in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Not so because my editor is forced to put my columns up, but because he has the option not to without worry that U.S. Government officials will shut him down or arrest him.

So, the fact that you are reading this column is a guileless act that once again proves the American Experiment, started with the adoption of the First Amendment in 1791, is alive and flourishing.

While my editor’s chest is puffed out in patriotic euphoria, allow me to discuss why you are getting this civics lesson.

The Herald-Journal (The HJ) has an edict that they will put into their print editions “letters to the editor” of any substance. Of course, libel cannot be committed. But with few exceptions, if you write a letter to the HJ, they will print it. It does not even need to be on a subject germane to current news stories, or opinions that appeared in the newspaper.

Subsequently, these letters will go up on the HJ’s webpage. And, recently, the HJ decided to post these banshee-esque ramblings on to their Facebook page. Habitually, I avoid these letters. I find them caustic, inflammatory, insulting and meant only to cause derision.

That’s my schtick! They are intruding on my brand.

My occasional “CVD mailbag” columns are a parody of the “letters to the editor”. But the irony with this satire is that my fake letters are still nowhere as bizarre as the offerings sent to the HJ.

Regrettably, I tried to engage some people on Facebook about the letters. I then enveloped myself into paradox by writing a “letter to the editor” about…well, yeah, you see the wordplay.

The most prevalent responses were:

<ol><li>First Amendment</li><li>Free Speech</li></ol>

Okay, to anyone that uses that argument, I have a question for you:

Are you suggesting that newspapers and news websites are forced by the United States Constitution to print any “letter” that is sent to them?

If you answer in the affirmative, you are woefully ignorant and pathetically short-sighted to what is the most precious right granted to Americans citizens.

Let us read, verbatim, the First Amendment.

<em>“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”</em>

So, what part of that tells you that the HJ, CVD or any news organization is forced to print letters to the editor? In fact, it says the opposite. Congress can make no law abridging free speech. The rest of us are left to our own devices regarding what we say and where we say it. The press works unimpeded. If the HJ wants to print those letters, that is their choice; just like it is CVD’s right to print my prodigious prattle.

I disagree with the HJ’s decision to allow people who come off as unstable to hurl invective at will on their pages. But I understand and defend their right to do so. My vexation is targeted at the people who cry “censorship!” at my counter argument that news outlets should use a reasonable level of discretion regarding content—arbitrary as that discretion may turn out to be.

If a small town newspaper need, by force of law, to print every single opinion sent to them, should not large newspapers be equally accountable for being a conduit to the vox populi? Whatever effort it may take, this reasoning would make it mandatory—though nearly impossible—for the New York Times to print every single “letter to the editor” sent their way. Thousands of opinions a week go to the Paper of Record; and, based on the logic by those who disagree with me on Facebook, the Times would be responsible for making sure every letter was printed…or they would be labeled as enemies of Free Speech.

Free Speech, or, more succinctly, the First Amendment does not say what many of you think it says.

Newspapers can refuse to put the bigoted comments of their readers under their banner. Facebook, Twitter and all social networking websites can take down any content it deems inappropriate or offensive. A restaurant owner has a right to put any political sign on its premises it wishes. The list can go on forever. But because my editor exercises his Constitutionally-granted right to impose a (soft and often abused) 1,000 word maximum for my columns, I must stop there.

We live in an era where Americans are now embedded with the belief they can say anything without repercussions. Whatever thoughts come into the brain, no matter how profane, can be posted on social networking. All you have to do is hit the “send” button and not think more than a second about the effect it has on others.

In this unfortunate nexus of narcissism and societal nihilism, there are small town news outlets. The small town newspaper/website is where dedicated reporters tell their readers—many of whom, the reporters know personally—about what is going on in the place where they live. It is a solemn, honorable profession to work for a small town newspaper or news website. I laud those who work at the HJ, CVD and every small town news source for their dedication to this cause.

One final rhetorical question:

Aren’t there enough avenues for wackadoos to screech their bitter bile? With talk radio and the already-mentioned Facebook as conduits for misinformed monologues, why do news outlets have to feed the beast?

The First Amendment and the concept of Free Speech most certainly allow for such simple-minded people to have those opinions; they likewise allow newspapers to print those opinions. But they also allow newspapers the right to throw many of those opinions in the trash, where most of them belong.

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