Editorial: The Importance of Protecting Free Speech

By Becky O’Malley
Friday August 11, 2006

This week we got a phone call from a polite but persistent guy who asked to speak to the editor—that’s me. When I called him back, he identified himself as the owner of a restaurant which has been advertising once a week in our restaurant guide section, and he said he was so unhappy with the paper’s coverage of the Middle East that he was thinking of canceling his ad. Now, 60 bucks a week one way or the other (those little color ads are almost loss-leader cheap for the advertisers) won’t make or break the budget, so we really don’t have a strong financial interest in arguing with the guy, but I did make an effort to explain two principles to him. First, respectable newspapers don’t let advertisers dictate policy for the editorial section and second, we firmly believe that airing all opinions, even those we find extremely distasteful, is the best way to solve problems in the long run. I pointed out that the Planet didn’t “cover” the Middle East, but just allowed opinions on the news from that area to be printed as letters or commentary signed by the authors. I asked the restaurant owner if he ever read the European press on the Internet, or Ha’aretz, the Israeli paper, or even the New York Times on a regular basis. He said he didn’t. We had a civil discussion, but it was apparent he wasn’t persuaded.  

I’ll check the ads in today’s paper to see if he did cancel. We’re used to this, having had a number of similar threats and actual cancellations from strong supporters of one of the parties in the Middle East disputes in the past.  

We also got a call from a young-sounding woman with a San Francisco number who said she was “Tami from ADL.” I expected that meant she represented the Anti-Defamation League. When I called her back, she said “We’d like to meet with you.” I’d just fielded a similar request for a meeting from the manager of a political candidate. In both cases, I’m assuming they hope to affect the way the paper covers stories and issues that they care about, and frankly, the answer to both has to be sorry, but no dice.  

I told Tami that if she was hoping to persuade us to self-censor our opinion coverage, a meeting would be a waste of time for both parties, but if her organization wanted to submit a commentary we’d be happy to print it. She didn’t say yes to that, but said goodbye in a hurry, and I must admit we were waiting apprehensively for the other shoe to drop. But she has submitted a letter for today’s paper after all, which action we heartily applaud.  

We don’t agree with her that speech causes hate, that “hateful words can lead to ugly, violent acts.” We think it’s the other way round, that hate causes angry speech, and that angry speech serves as a good early warning that hate is present and violence might follow. Ironically, Ha’aretz is a bastion of free speech of all kinds, and it’s a good safety valve for a conflict that has already turned violent.  

There just doesn’t seem to be any way to convince partisans that using the advertising dollar or any other form of persuasion to suppress speech you don’t like in newspapers hurts your cause in the long run. Those angry people full of hate are out there, and even if you have the muscle to keep them out of the papers they’re still angry, you just don’t hear about it.  

What you don’t know can hurt you. The best remedy for speech you don’t like, or which frightens you, is more speech. Burying your head in the sand, ostrich-like, just leaves your flanks exposed to enemies. When a correspondent refers in all seriousness to the “Arab-European” school of journalism, it should be cause for alarm. That’s a good bit of the world he’s writing off, people he should probably be listening to, for self-protection if nothing else.  

And the Internet is making it possible to spread all kinds of ideas both good and bad at warp speed, so censoring newspapers is no solution. Ned Lamont’s Connecticut primary victory over Middle East hawk Joe Lieberman shows the power of the new forms of media. (Two Berkeley organizations, DailyKos and MoveOn.org, can claim a good deal of the credit for that one.) Contrary organizations and opinions can also be found in profusion on the Internet. The dialogue is healthy, even though some of the expression is uncivil in the extreme. There’s no reason newspaper readers need to be shielded from the information and opinion explosion taking place in cyberspace, even though, unlike the Internet, print journalism has traditionally been supported by commercial advertising.  

We’re profoundly grateful to the several excellent organizations which have made it their business to defend the public’s right to read all about it in their newspapers. The American Civil Liberties Union has a long and distinguished history, especially the ACLU of Northern California. FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Media) does good work making sure that press coverage is not one-sided.  

We’ve just learned that Terry Francke, Peter Scheer and the California First Amendment Coalition have been selected to receive the 2006 Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award sponsored by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. The award recognizes accomplishments on behalf of the freedoms provided by the First Amendment. Peter is the current director of CFAC, and Terry is its most recent past director who has gone on to start a new organization, Californians Aware, with a similar mission. Both groups are particularly interested in access to governmental records in California, an important part of preserving citizen oversight of actions carried out in the name of the public. They provide all kinds of important help to papers like ours, to other media and to the public at large. 

Anyone interested in learning more about the whys and wherefores of protecting free speech can take advantage of the opportunity to attend CFAC's First Amendment Assembly, featuring Arianna Huffington, Dan Ellsberg, Gabriel Schoenfeld, Dan Weintraub, Dan Gillmor—and more—which will be held this year on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 29 and 30, at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. If you register early, admission is free. Go to cfac.org for particulars.