HSJ Headline News
Freedom of speech also comes with significant responsibility
March 7, 2009
A local high school journalism teacher posed an interesting question: When is it editing, and when is it censorship?
She was struggling with the enthusiasm of her student-journalists. They’d so embraced the spirit of the First Amendment that they were sprinkling their articles with language that, in polite company, wouldn’t be permitted.
At what point, she said, is it OK for her to step in and say, firmly, no more, and delete language that is offensive?
It’s a thorny issue, especially in a public school setting, which, essentially, is an arm of government. The First Amendment clearly states that Congress – i.e., government – shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.
Taking the public-school element out of this discussion, along with court rulings that say First Amendment rights do not necessarily extend to high school publications, what this teacher was proposing was editing, not censorship.
The government – the teacher – was not restricting her students’ right to comment. She was exercising judgment, and teaching them a valuable lesson about discretion and the appropriate use of our rights and privileges.
Interestingly, just a few days after that inquiry came an e-mail from a college student, asking about a column that had been published in his school newspaper.
He found the column offensive. The writer had essentially accused the entire Iraqi civilian population of harboring weapons of mass destruction. This student-reader thought the publication should not have allowed such speech to be printed. But, he asked, would that violate the commentator’s freedom of speech?
If the government, or a government agent, had denied the writer the opportunity to express his opinion, that would, indeed, be a violation of his First Amendment rights. But if the newspaper had declined to publish the column, or had revised the column to remove statements it found offensive or libelous or in poor taste, that would be editing.
And editing is not prohibited by the First Amendment.
The First Amendment ensures each citizen the right to freedom of expression. But with that right comes a responsibility. And, for a news company, that responsibility includes editing to avoid libel or slander.
Often, a writer in the passion of making their case steps over the line by using red-flag terms, like crook or cheat, or phrases like “lining their pockets” or “buying votes.” In print, we can edit letters and comments to remove the libelous, the untrue, the mean or nasty. Online, we have to delete the entire comment, for reasons I’ll leave to the Internet lawyers to explain.
Engaged, informed public debate is a treasured hallmark of our society and our form of government. And there are a great many media outlets – in print, on TV and radio, online – available for citizens to express their viewpoints. With the Internet, every individual can create their own platform.
Our goal, and responsibility, is to provide a forum for educated debate. We want to provide our readers with the opportunity to advance discussion of key community issues. Whether we agree or not is immaterial; what is material is that those debates and discussions are robust and responsible. And don’t land us a libel suit because of language, unsubstantiated accusations or name-calling.
Reprinted with permission from the Observer-Dispatch, Utica, NY.