Editorial: The right response to wrong speech

The Island Now

On Super Bowl Sunday, we received an email from a reader who identified himself as a former media executive, criticizing our papers for publishing opinion pieces from people “who misstate facts – or simply make unfounded accusations.”

As an example, he cited a letter that said President Trump’s proposed southern wall would save lives.

The letter, he said, mimicked Trump and publishing the letter gave us a role in “perpetuating this fear – anger and hate between our citizens – dividing us at a time when we need leaders to unite us.”

Two days later, at the State of the Union, Trump again repeated his claim that the wall he has proposed between the United States and Mexico would save lives among other things.

“The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial well-being of all Americans,” said the president of the United States.

Most if not all the Republicans in Congress rose when Trump made this claim and applauded. Trump repeated the claim at a rally in El Paso, Texas, on Monday night.

The decision of a newspaper to publish readers’ opinions has always been subject to debate. That decision has become that much more difficult during the presidency of Donald Trump.

There is no question in our minds that Trump’s rhetoric has divided Americans, undermined institutions central to our democracy including a free press and debased the concept of truth with more than 8,000 lies and misrepresentations during his two years in office according to people who have fact-checked him.

Nor is there any question in our minds that there is no crisis along our southern border or that the wall Mexico was supposed to pay for will not stop drugs or reduce crime. We also believe that the wall represents an appeal to people’s racial prejudices.

The question is whether we should publish the claims of the president of the United States. Or his supporters. Or others, either on the left or the right politically, who we think factually wrong or may or may not be appealing to our base instincts.

This newspaper has sought to serve as a community forum for people on all sides of the political spectrum to present their views on any topic they choose. We believe this serves as an antidote to the trend of people hearing only one side of any debate on cable television stations or social media groups. And that such exchange of opinions generates more light than heat.

We do have limits. We do not publish letters that are libelous or ad hominem attacks against a private citizen. We also bar letters seen as attacks based on race, religion ethnicity or gender, although that is often not an easy choice at a time of changing values.

Is it okay to call someone a “globalist?” Or refer to “national borders?” Or refer to the Republican Congress as “old, white men?” These are questions we see asked with increasing frequency.

We also do not fact check letters. To do so, we believe, would be impractical, requiring hours and hours of manpower, and would result in us often blocking arguments central to current political debate. This begins with the wall but goes on and on.

We believe the alternative is far simpler and more practical: allowing other readers to correct factual claims, offer different opinions or both. That is the idea behind the First Amendment and the concept of free speech.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously advised: the remedy to bad speech is “more speech, not enforced silence.”

Unfortunately, we are finding an increasing number of readers from both sides of the political spectrum unwilling to follow this advice.

One of our papers, the Port Washington Times, was recently criticized for printing an ad in the form of a letter that said the Port Washington school district lagged behind other school districts — a discussion always worth having. But then he blamed the district’s performance on a board dominated by members whose sole qualification was being a mother.

Or at least we think we were criticized. No letters were sent to the paper but we did receive a number of second-hand reports of people responding angrily in a Facebook group that the advertorial was anti-women. Some also said the advertorial should not have been published.

The advertorial writer, a frequent critic of the school district, did state that just being a father was also not sufficient to being a school board member but he then singled out as positive examples two school districts that he said were dominated by “eminently qualified” men.

There were holes in the argument presented in the ad big enough to drive a school bus through. Two of Port Washington’s board members are men and two of the female board members are lawyers. One, the vice president of the board, spent 15 years as a litigator.

The president of one of the school districts the letter-writer said was a superior district, Great Neck, is also a woman.

In short, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to discredit a frequent critic of the school district. But no one responded.

Were we supposed to not publish the advertorial? if so, what happens during the next election for school board or village trustee?

Ironically, the #MeToo Movement and the success of women in the last congressional election once again demonstrated the power of people speaking out.

We hope that is a message that does not get lost amid the rancor.

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