2002-02-23 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

The Supreme Court, in the 1974 decision in Gertz v. Robert Welsh, said, "There is no such thing as a false opinion."

There are some who think that opinion, false or true, has no place in a newspaper. The Wave often gets phone calls and E-Mail asking, "How could you print that story," when the story in question was either a column or an editorial.

While news stories are factual and without editorial opinion, there are a number of elements in every newspaper that are opinion-based. Those "comment" elements of a newspaper include the editorial page, columns, reviews and the letters to the editor.

Those elements are often called "protected comment," because their views and their voice are protected by the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

For those of you who have never read that document, its First Amendments says, "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…"

Those are some of the most important words ever written.

More germane to the issue at hand is James Madison’s 1822 statement about the relationship between an enlightened electorate and the press.

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or to a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Newspapers are, by their very nature, controversial. They are supposed to be controversial. A newspaper provides its readership with ideas. Varied ideas. Disparate ideas.

Many of those ideas are embraced by the majority of our readers. Some of those ideas are not.

Some of the opinions that we print in our comment sections, such as the Bag Of Mail, are abhorrent to others who read The Wave. Some of it is even abhorrent to the editorial staff of The Wave.

That does not mean, however, that we do not have a constitutional obligation to print that comment.

That does not mean, as some have pointed out, that we have a legal obligation to print all the letters we receive. It clearly does not mean that.

It does mean, however, that we have a moral obligation to print diverse viewpoints on issues of the day.

We have the obligation to be a "marketplace of ideas" and we don’t do that by censuring comment from any member of the community, no matter how "far out" or abhorrent that comments seem to us personally.

What brings this history lesson to print at this particular time are three letters that were printed in last week’s Bag Of Mail.

The first was entitled "Sides With The Arabs," and was what many believe is an anti-Semitic polemic against Israel and our support of that nation.

Do we agree with the letter? Of course, we do not. That is precisely why we had a moral obligation to print it.

The second letter was entitled "Not As It Seems," and suggests to columnist Geraldine Chapey that she should not be supporting Bishop Thomas Daley because of the church’s admitted forbearance of pedophile priests.

The third letter was entitled "Speak English .…Please," and was a congratulatory letter to the editor for "having the courage to champion the English language."

While many people agreed with each of those letters, they angered another portion of The Wave’s readership. Each of those letters held an idea that is agreed to by some and abhorrent to others.

There can be no question that each of those letters addressed an issue that is a "hot-button issue" in today’s society – who to blame for the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, what to do about the problem of pedophile priests and whether we should have an English-only policy in our schools.

Should The Wave have ignored those letters, put them in the "circular file" thereby ending any chance the ideas they postulated would ever see the light of day?

I don’t think that it would have been proper for us to do that, no matter whether we agreed with those ideas or not.

Early on Saturday morning, an elderly Jewish man came to the Wave office. He said that he had just come from a local synagogue and that the letter about Israel was discussed at length.

He told us that the congregation was very angry with The Wave for printing the letter. He said that we should have "drawn the line" at that letter.

I told him about our moral obligation and asked him the quintessential First Amendment question.

"Who should decide where the line should be drawn?"

Should Jewish editors, for example ignore any letter that is anti-Jewish or anti-Israel? Should Catholic editors ignore any letter than points out deficiencies in the church? Should Republican editors delete anything negative that is said about the President?

You can see where this is going and where it leads. It leads to the proverbial "slippery slope" that has no end.

We printed those three letters because they represent ideas that are held by some in the community and, as such, deserve to be heard.

Those ideas deserve to be heard even if those at The Wave do not agree with them. They deserve to be heard even if the majority of people in Rockaway do not agree with them.

That is what our Founding Fathers meant when they wrote the First Amendment. That is what Madison was talking about.

And, that is what we will continue to provide to The Wave readership.


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