Freedom of speech does not guarantee a platform

August 29, 2009|By LINDA DUFFIELD

The Second Amendment to the Constitution gives us the right to bear arms. That right is accompanied by the responsibility not to go around shooting people willy-nilly.

The First Amendment guarantees that Congress -- meaning the government -- is barred from infringing on press freedom or on the right of people to speak their minds.

The responsibility that accompanies that right should keep news organizations from firing untrue or unproven verbal shots willy-nilly.

That responsibility, along with our sense of fairness and ethical standards, also prevents The Herald-Mail from letting others take groundless potshots in letters to the editor, Mail Call items or other submitted material. Out of the same sense of fairness, we try to keep inappropriate comments off our Web site.

Our taking that stand does not violate the right to free speech as spelled out in the First Amendment:

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.


Don't get me wrong. We appreciate receiving the written and verbal comments of our readers.

The Herald-Mail, like most newspapers, feels a moral obligation to run letters to the editor and op-ed columns, both of which must be signed by the writers, so those with a point to make have a chance to do so.

We go a step further and offer Mail Call, an anonymous call-in line, and we run many inches of those comments on most days.

Similarly, our Web site gives people the opportunity to comment on forums, under poll questions and under most stories.

Not everything we receive will be published in the paper, and not all comments will remain on our Web site.

It goes back to that right and responsibility thing. We cannot, in fairness, print in the newspaper anything we know to be untrue or anything defamatory to others. On top of the fairness issue, to do so could carry consequences that could include legal problems.

Because there seems to be some confusion about what we can and can't print in the paper, and what we will or won't allow on our Web site, I'd like to provide answers to some of the frequently asked questions we hear in the office.

Q: I've called Mail Call a number of times, but my comment hasn't been printed. Why?

A: There are a number of possible reasons. If we have a lot of comments on the same subject, only a sampling of them might make it into the paper, allowing for a variety of topics to be covered in the space available.

Other times, comments are excluded because they are rumor and/or make unfounded accusations against others. Libel laws and our sense of fairness keep statements we know are not true, or that we can't prove are true, out of the paper.

Q: Why didn't my letter to the editor run in the paper, or why was a portion of it deleted?

A: A letter won't run if it contains libelous or defamatory information. A portion of the letter could run if it still made sense after the libelous information was removed.

Q: Why was my comment deleted from beneath the poll question, a story or from a forum at the Web site?

A: Comments are deleted if they are libelous, violate our ethical or fairness standards, or are, in the legal sense, a privacy violation.

Q: Why are reader comments turned off under crime stories?

A: We turn off comments under stories related to arrests and charges against people who have not been convicted of any crime. Being charged is a long way from being convicted and we believe that those charged are innocent until proven guilty.

We have learned from experience that some very unkind comments show up under crime stories if comments are not turned off.

Comments are turned on in cases in which defendants are convicted of crimes.

While many people exercise self-control when they submit a letter for publication, phone Mail Call or comment on the Web, others do not, especially when their identities are protected.

To those who are emboldened by anonymity, I would ask: Does the Second Amendment grant the right to be a sniper, to fire at innocent people from a place of concealment?

No. Neither does the First.

Linda Duffield is city editor of The Herald-Mail. You can e-mail her at

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