The constitutional right to disagree

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.

The First Amendment

to the U.S. Constitution

It just seems to be a human trait to want to protect the speech of people with whom we agree. For the First Amendment, that is not good enough. So it is really important that we protect First Amendment rights of people no matter what side of the line they are on.

Floyd Abrams

First Amendment attorney

The value journalists hold most dear is the right to freely express ideas. Those of us who have a hand in editing opinion pages, especially, are heartened by active involvement and vigorous expression, and discouraged by apathy. We also bear a deep appreciation for civility. We believe that our readers collectively can express widely divergent opinions without infringing on the rights of others, and we also believe that should be the goal of all who care about participatory democracy. Informed voters are effective voters.

Earlier this month, two individuals whose candidate preferences differed from those expressed in a Journal editorial,submitted a letter to the editor stating that the Journal, as a “public newspaper,” and specifically I were out of line in endorsing candidates in the local Republican primary.

That’s a fair opinion, and the letter was published. However, I want to explain why newspapers (which usually are privately owned businesses, as is the Journal) endorse candidates, how we arrive at our endorsements, and whose opinion an editorial actually states.

The right to publish editorials is firmly enshrined in the First Amendment, the first set of rights to be guaranteed when the framers of the Constitution recognized the need to add a Bill of Rights. The responsibility to do so is inherited from a long line of newspaper editors and pamphleteers who believed, correctly, that they had an obligation to take a stand on matters that affected their communities.

The news pages of the Journal provided very specific information about candidates: what they had done in their professional lives, their opinions about current issues, what they had said in interviews and forums. The letters column gives readers a forum for stating their own opinions and offers candidates space to promote their own ideas. Not all candidates take advantage of that offer.

Besides having access to all that information, a newspaper staff is witness to a great deal of what happens in the community, and sometimes we can identify patterns that are not as visible to others. For example, we know how many letters in support of which candidate came from whose fax machine. We know which candidates fed questionable information about opponents to letter writers so that the candidates themselves could distance themselves from negative campaigning. In at least two instances, we know who actually wrote letters that someone else was willing to sign. We often can see where ideas originate (for example, the idea that newspapers should not endorse political candidates) and who repeats them, sometimes verbatim or nearly so.

We also have access to archives that help us see the long-term trajectory of an idea or of a candidate’s public-service career, and tools like the Associated Press to place them in a broader context.

Those are the ideas we offer to readers in our editorials, who are free to consider or reject what we publish.

The editorial space — one box on the left side of Page 4, near the top — expresses the opinion of the publication. Those positions are solidified with varying levels of formality. Some — “Go, Panthers! Win at State!” — don’t involve much more collaboration than a trip to the sports editor’s desk or a phone call to the school. Others, including political endorsements, are products of a substantial amount of conversation with many people, both on the newspaper staff and in the community. Depending on the topic, we may stand around a desk or sit down as a formal editorial board to arrive at a consensus and refine a position.

Then someone writes an editorial expressing that position and, often, giving an “on the other hand” nod to contrary opinions. The stated opinion is not always mine; in fact, the Journal regularly publishes editorials I have not written and with which I personally disagree, just as it publishes and even solicits columns and letters with which I also do not agree. True freedom must include the right to disagree.

Suzy Meyer is publisher of the Cortez Journal.

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