It was just about a year ago that I suggested that readers of the Independent observe “Writing Thursday,” because we wanted to get more letters to the editor. Sure enough, our letters column has grown, often spilling over, like this week, onto the op-ed page.
It’s especially encouraging when readers who disagree with our reporting or our editorial judgments take the time to write. It means that they trust us enough to let them speak to the community through our pages. Publishing critical letters is part of the responsibility that goes along with the rights of a free press.
Last week we got a letter from someone who said her neighbor was disturbing her by playing loud music all afternoon and evening. “We paid a hefty price to build our retirement home in the ‘peaceful’ woods of North Truro,” she wrote.
People often write to try to solve problems. In those cases, I spend time checking the facts. I wrote back asking if she had spoken to that neighbor about it, or, if that didn’t work, to the town officials who enforce Truro’s noise regulations. I also questioned some of the statements in her letter to clarify their meaning and determine whether they were true.
The letter-writer was not pleased.
“If all letters had to express only what someone else deems as true, where is the freedom of speech/freedom of press in that?” she replied. “I don’t believe any person that takes the time to pen their thoughts for submission is intending for someone to play cop at the end. I think the spot at the top has gone slightly to your head. You won’t last long because one of these times, you will tangle with the wrong person.”
I explained that freedom of speech does not include the right to knowingly publish things that aren’t true.
“I do not have to justify my words to you,” she wrote, adding, “Your job is not to police someone’s words, as if you are a lawyer. And for the record, freedom of speech is exactly that. FREEDOM OF SPEECH, without any strings attached.”
For the record, the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech….” That is, the government cannot stop people from expressing themselves. That prohibition doesn’t apply to nongovernment actors, like newspapers. And there are, in fact, several strings attached, including laws against libel, invasion of privacy, child pornography, threats, “fighting words,” and the famous cry of fire in a crowded theater.
I have to admit that this exchange gave me a new perspective on our beleaguered police. Because I do believe that the editor’s job is to police people’s words — to protect the innocent from those who would use words to hurt others unjustly.