On Censorship - What It Means To Publish Or Not Publish Submitted Opinion

Photo Credit: Katie Hellmuth Martin

Photo Credit: Katie Hellmuth Martin

This month’s “Letters To The Editor” section of the Beacon Free Press got a little spicy. The letters are usually spirited with opinion, but this month, 1 letter was published in opposition of gay people (1 letter in the entire space - no other letters were published that week of July 17, 2019), and 7 letters were published in response and in protest the following week, July 24, 2019.

The letter writer was Dick Murphy, a well known emailer to people he has elected to send his thoughts to. He has put me on this email list, though I usually skip his emails (btw, it is in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act to add people to an email list without their permission). The email letters are usually about Democracy, Slavery, the U.S. Constitution, Catholicism, White Male Patriarchy, Kings and Queens, and so on.

When this “Letter to the Editor” popped into my email box, I ignored it (we don’t even have a “Letter to the Editor” section here at the blog). But the Beacon Free Press published it - as Dick Murphy was pushing censorship as his reason for why it should be published. Back in the email-environment (I hadn’t seen the newspaper yet or read his letter) I began seeing people Replying All to ask to be removed from his list, to which he responded by accusing them of censorship. It was at that time that I read his letter, and asked him to remove me from his list as well.

What Was His Letter To The Editor About? What’s All The Fuss?

His letter was about his disagreement with the PEACE flag in rainbow colors that hung above Main Street in Beacon. In his disagreement with it, he cited military death tolls in World War II and Vietnam, mixing these statistics (uncited - the source of the numbers is unknown) with American who have died from Aids, and put forth his opinion about that. Personally, I found his opinion very sad. There is no current debate about it with two sides of anything to discuss. I moved along.

Until I saw that the Beacon Free Press published it. They have published other outlandish accusatory advertorials (groups who buy ad space to slander other people), and this was another step in the eyebrow raising direction of: “Really?”

The Beacon Free Press received an outcry from its readers, stating their disappointment in the newspaper’s choice to publish such an opinion. The following week, the paper published 7 dissenting Letters to the Editor. Come to think of it, I don’t even know who the editor is at the Beacon Free Press, as they don’t publish their masthead in the printed paper. Their website reveals that the editor is Ray Fashona, who is the editor for all of Southern Dutchess News, which is the publisher of Beacon Free Press.

So what is censorship? Does it happen, and if so, is it OK?

What Is Censorship?

Censorship happens. It is real, and exists for reasons that protect something. According to the the Britannica’s definition, censorship means “the suppression or prohibition of speech or writing that is deemed subversive of the common good.”

In terms of legality, anyone can censor, except for the United States government when it comes to making laws. The First Amendment does not mandate anyone to publish, listen to, or otherwise do anything with someone else’s right to say what they want to say.

The first line of the First Amendment reads: “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.”

People may not always agree with when censorship happens, but censorship both protects good people from slander, verbal, physical, visual or emotional abuse, propagation of lies, and so forth. Social media companies have humans filtering out (aka censoring) photos and messages all day every day that any person can upload at any time that are inappropriate and harmful (See this Washington Post article, “Content moderators at YouTube, Facebook and Twitter see the worst of the web — and suffer silently.” This manual deletion of photos and comments at social media companies happens even more so now that social media platforms have been accused of not enough censorship of hate speech.

In government, censorship can happen in all forms, and is resisted against. For instance, in a recent vote July 2, 2019, in Putnam County, virtually any document can be hidden as “‘confidential’ to prevent their disclosure.” Any legislators, county officials and consultants can classify documents as “confidential.” This vote passed by 7-1. So far, this new law is seeing resistance from those in its community and the 1 legislator who voted against it, and it is a story we are following.

Should A Newspaper Censor?

Every newspaper censors. Every publication of any kind censors, for several reasons:

  • A topic isn’t relevant to what else they are publishing. It’s not “timely.”

  • A topic isn’t relevant to their audience. Every single media outlet - be it TV, podcast, blog, newspaper, magazine, radio station - creates and publishes content that their audience would like, resonate with, or feel engaged by.

  • A newspaper ran out of space. It’s paper, so there is only so much space to say something.

  • A blog or any media outlet simply ran out of time and life marched forward! (arg, happens all the time here). This is called unintentional censorship. Some people who want to see a story covered, and don’t. So it could look like “they won’t cover it.” When really, it’s only because we are drowning in words.

So when the Beacon Free Press published this letter, they made a choice. Was it the only letter submission they received that week? Why was it the only letter published? The following week, the letters that poured into the newspaper stating their disappointment with the newspaper apparently led the newspaper to dedicate almost 1.5 printed pages to publishing them.

Is A Newspaper Obligated To Print Everything?

No. For the reasons stated above. A newspaper - or any media outlet - may want to report on “both sides” of an issue. But in the contents of that letter, there are no sides. It’s his opinion that is harmful to a group of people. It is hatred. So, usually media outlets will not engage, endorse or propagate outlandish and harmful speech. They will censor - or ignore - it.

Do You, Dear Reader, Censor?

You do! Usually this is called “a filter.” Some people are more connected to their filter than others.

Other times, this is called “walking away.” If you are talking to someone in person on the street (aka IRL), and they say something to you, and things get uncomfortable, you bid that person “Good-day,” and you walk away.

If that person yells at your back as you walk away, that is called rude, and bad sportsmanship. If that person continues to follow you, and starts sending you mail, you might chalk that up to stalking.

Does that person have a right to speak? Of course. And it is everyone else’s right to walk away and not want to hear it.

Here A Little Beacon Blog, We Have Guidelines

As does the Beacon Free Press, I’m sure. It is a great newspaper for learning about local events, opportunities for seniors, veterans, Dutchess County news, politics and more. A Little Beacon Blog generally does not cover elections, interviews with politicians, and other promotion of politics. We will, however, cover local issues that come out of politicking, of course.

We don’t publish submitted article comments that come from people who make up their names. Or who make up things about other people (this is called slander). Or who bash other businesses in order to protect their own business (though if they do it in our Instagram, we may leave that up for others to see, since they exposed themselves, and the public can make up their own minds on how they want to deal with that business).

We normally don’t delete submitted comments in social media, but do if it is harmful to someone or a group of people. However, we have started deleting memes, as funny as they are, because of emerging copyright law that is protecting the person in the meme who doesn’t want to be associated with whatever subject a person decided to attach their likeness to without their permission.

So yes. There is censorship. To be accused of censorship is at first uncomfortable, until you explore what it means to censor. Censoring isn’t always a bad thing. It is something that happens for good and bad reasons and should always be monitored.