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We must limit political speech?

Intolerance resides at both ends of the political spectrum. One of the occupational hazards of being in the news business is hearing from those small minds more often than is good for the American soul.

Last week, it was the intolerant on the political left who wished to censor a paid political ad (a DVD) inserted in some newspapers on Friday. Before the piece was delivered to less than 10 percent of Review-Journal households (they couldn’t afford more, I guess), letters began to sprinkle in. Many looked suspiciously alike. All asked "how dare we" take political advertising critical of Obama. The letters threatened the newspaper with economic retribution.

There is no amount of common sense that can assuage the fringe from their mission of censorship. I won’t try. This message is to those clear thinkers on the American middle road.

We live, as you know, in a wonderful country. To succeed as the kind of democracy envisioned by Washington, Jefferson and Adams, we must foster unfettered freedom of speech in all forms — from political to academic to religious — and apply it to newspapers, to books, to movies, to radio, to television and to the Internet.

Are there limits? Sure. But they are few and far between and tend to fall into the yelling-fire-in-a-crowded-theater category. Otherwise, the America we love is one in which free speech exists in an open arena. It’s a rough-and-tumble environment that can make politics a contact sport. It’s the job of every good American to make up his or her own mind after filtering through the widest possible band of thought. We can’t let the fringe succeed in pre-empting the critics of their choosing. We can’t allow charismatic leaders, scorned candidates, lockstep college professors, hateful preachers or angry mobs to tamp down fertile minds and vigorous debate.

Believe me, in the newspaper business we see people every day who, in the name of one "good" cause or another, seek to limit people’s access to information, speech and thought.

One of the turning points in this country for free speech came in 1964 after The New York Times said that the arrest of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for perjury in Alabama was part of a campaign to destroy King’s efforts to integrate public facilities and encourage blacks to vote.

L.B. Sullivan, Montgomery city commissioner, filed a libel action against the newspaper. Sullivan won a $500,000 judgment based in part on the fact The Times piece contained factual errors.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, overturned the decision and held that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials, except when the statements are made with actual malice. In other words, factually incorrect speech made without malice was not actionable.

This new and righteous standard created an even greater degree of free speech in America.

I’m sorry to tell you many today take that freedom for granted.

And did I mention that the piece in question in The New York Times wasn’t a column, or an editorial or a front page news article?

It was an ad purchased by a few people who thought they saw an injustice the world needed to know about.

If the small minds on the fringe had their way, they’d overturn Times v. Sullivan. I, for one, am thankful for the good people on the middle road, those who keep alive the tradition of Washington, Jefferson and Adams, and won’t let that happen.

 

Sherman Frederick (sfrederick@reviewjournal.com) is publisher of the Review-Journal and president of Stephens Media.

 

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