Only in America do we sometimes imagine that there are no limits to free speech. Indeed, the Supreme Court just extended the concept to include corporations’ right to make virtually unlimited political donations. But even in America there are in fact some limits, as expressed in our laws against libel and slander and our tradition of journalistic ethics.
And yet there is no doubt that our public square can be unruly. In Telluride, we’ve had a couple of recent examples. On The Watch website, anonymous comments attacking individuals have forced us, the website’s owners, to think hard about whether to remove the offending comments or leave them. Just this week, we posted a story about the announced intentions of a hate group to come to Telluride to picket Gay Ski Week.
Should we have published this story? And how much of this group's hate speech should we quote? We decided that our readers have a right to know the group may be headed this way, and to publish just enough of their nonsense to support our description of them as a hate group.
In the new media world of 24-hour cable TV channels, unfettered hate speech on the radio, innumerable websites allowing anonymous comments to be published, and Twitter, America’s dedication to free speech is being given a real workout. Anyone can get away with saying just about anything almost anytime the impulse comes over him or her.
In the national political arena, we see politicians lie with absolute confidence that being called out on it won’t cost them a vote. Meanwhile, citizens say almost unbelievably hateful things about politicians. Locally, in Telluride, there’s growing animus expressed toward our elected officials and government employees, if comments on our website are any indication, because they are perceived as being buffered from the economic storm that is hurting so many others in the community.
The Tea Party, for better or worse, comes home.
Now The Watch has extended its offerings to include more robust and more visible blogging. It is all but certain that some of what will be posted to our website will push the limits of what is acceptable. We will do our best to manage commentary as lightly as possible, knowing it might not be easy because we are operating in a rapidly evolving media environment.
Which brings me back to the concept of free speech.
Free speech means that anyone in America can start his or her own website, or newspaper, or stand in a public place and attempt to draw a crowd, as the hate group drawn to Gay Ski Week may try to do.
It doesn’t mean that anyone can post just anything they want to somebody else’s website, without the risk that it may be deleted. Abuse can be moderated. We don’t want to go there. So here’s to hoping that our online community can and will police itself. Schoolyard antics will only reduce the value of the forum for everyone.
So let’s avoid hate speech, personal attacks, blatant lies, and unsupported allegations of illegal or immoral activity. But don’t worry, bloggers. Those broad proscriptions still leave plenty of room for unruliness.