Free Press + Free Speech = Free Time?

Arguments about in MediaLand pop up constantly about whether someone should or should not should say a particular thing, often boiling over into a "well, it's a free speech issue!" or "the free press is guaranteed by the Constitution!"

Well, those are two entirely different things. One is an absolute and one is conditional, presuming a level of professionalism and ethics. Imagine if you walked up to your boss and work and gave him or her a rather critical scathing. See how freedom of speech works out for you there.

This week we saw two examples of how people working in the press don't necessarily have the absolute right to say just anything, either.

The Indianapolis Star

First off, Indianapolis Star editorial writer Rishawn Biddle was removed from this position at the paper for a fiery blog post about local politicians. According to Richard Prince's "Journal-isms" website:

An African American editorial writer for the Indianapolis Star was ousted late Wednesday, five days after he wrote a racially charged blog posting blasting the city and county council president, who is also African American.

The newspaper's editor, Dennis Ryerson, removed the posting by RiShawn Biddle Wednesday and apologized to readers…

Riddle's blog entry was titled, "The Indianapolis Black Democrat minstrel show."

It was originally called "Coons for Power," judging from the Web address for the blog entry, which uses those words, and according to the Indianapolis blogosphere.

The Star reacted immediately, apologizing to the city and the African-American community:
Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Star, said he ordered the posting removed as soon as he became aware of it and apologized on behalf of the paper.

He said the writer is no longer employed by the paper and that the comments did not follow the paper's standards.

"I want the Star to be, like the mayor said of the city, a model of civility," Ryerson said. "The Internet should be a center of electronic dialogue, not diatribe."

I don't know how Biddle thought this language even approached being passable. I presume that the coarseness of political language and blog culture got to him. But while every American is allowed to speak their mind – from sharing wisdom to uttering insults -- they're just not guaranteed to do so and expect that paycheck to keep coming in.

The Benicia Herald

A bedroom community outside of San Francisco and Oakland where a young Jack London was on the fish patrol, Benicia, California is a nice little town. But a bit of a storm blew through when the editor of the town newspaper was suspended for writing a column where he cited an e-mailer's complaints about local political ads.

According to the local Times-Herald:

The editor of a local newspaper said he was removed from his post after one of his editorial columns angered two local candidates in next week's election.

Les Mahler, who has been at the helm of the Benicia Herald for 10 months, said he was suspended Tuesday after he wrote an e-mail detailing a meeting he had with Herald advertising manager Pam Poppe, City Council candidate Scott Strawbridge and mayoral candidate Bill Whitney.

Mahler said the issue began last Thursday when his column quoted an anonymous letter critical of Strawbridge's campaign ads, which the letter said did not address issues…

Last Sunday, the Herald printed a retraction of Mahler's column, saying the editor violated policy by publishing an unsigned letter and attacking a candidate's position.

The article goes on to say that Mahler contended that the reprimand was "infringing on his freedom of speech." (There's that tempting fallback defense again.)

Now, this writer would be tempted to side with the newspaper's editor in this case – national big-name newspapers use anonymous sourcing all the time, you know – if not for two facts.

First, if the newspaper has a policy of not using unsigned letters, then that's something you need to stick to. Second, it would be a lesser sin if committed by a younger staffer unfamiliar with the rules, but Mahler is/was the editor and should have known better.

Why the policy against using unsigned letters? Accountability. The motiviation for the rule being: What's to stop a reporter from sending himself – or having a friend send him – an e-mail that reinforces his point, creating some faux consensus?

This writer is all for strong views and critical words that advance the debate, but it seems to me that Mahler could have made his point just fine on his own, or even used the tried-and-true "… and some pointed e-mails have come into this newsroom that said …" Or even gotten in touch with the writer to get clearance to run his text. Any of these would have been within the newspaper's guidelines.

As far as a takeaway is concerned, what is the pull-quote that ties these two anecdotes together into one tidy post? A quote in the California story from legal expert Jim Ewert, who said "Employees don't have absolute First Amendment rights in any workplace."