A Safe, Open Forum Is Key to Lively Opinion Pages

Article excerpt

Arizona lawsuit highlights need for newspapers to stick to ethical, legal standards

Newspapers have been forums for expressing opinion since their very beginning in America; in fact, many of the first newspapers were primarily created as vehicles for political speech.

Most every journalist knows about the wall of separation placed between the news content of a newspaper and its opinion or editorial pages. But unfortunately, not enough of the public does. And yet a principle at the foundation of ethical American journalism - objectivity - does not apply to opinion pages.

There the content is, ot course, subjective, and yet editorial-page editors also must rely on sound ethical principles to decide on what commentary to publish. Responsible editors must balance providing a forum for robust debate while avoiding content that is improper or even illegal.

Many editorial-page editors will discard submissions that engage in name-calling or employ racist, sexist or otherwise discriminatory language. But what about a call to commit violent acts?

That's not something you're likely to see on an editorial page. But what about a wartime situation, in which someone calls for violence as a response to violence? Can innocent civilians feel threatened enough by such a call - even if it wasn't made specifically to them - that they would prevail in a lawsuit against a newspaper that published it?

This is at issue in a case before the Arizona Supreme Court. According to court papers, the Tucson Citizen published a letter on Dec. 2, 2003, from a writer who suggested U.S. troops in Iraq retaliate for shots fired at them by going to nearby mosques and killing Muslims. Over the next several days, the Citizen published more than 20 letters from readers protesting the original.

Then the newspaper's editor and publisher, Michael Chihak, wrote a column four days after the first letter was published, apologizing and saying the writer had written the Citizen again to say his remarks referred only to military actions in war zones. Tucson Muslims sued the newspaper the following month, alleging civil assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress. No allegations of actual violence against Muslims in and around Tucson in response to the original letter were made in the suit.

A Pima County Superior Court judge threw out the assault count because specific persons were not mentioned in the letter. But Judge Leslie Miller let stand the emotional distress count to be adjudicated at trial. The newspaper has appealed that ruling. The state's highest court is expected to hear arguments on that point this spring.

While editorial pages serve their traditional role as a forum for vigorous community discussion, it's important to set minimum standards for the content of submissions from that community, said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FIa.

American society in recent years is showing increasing distaste for nuance and ambiguity and increasing insistence on the black and white, McBride said, resulting in less tolerance for reasoned disagreement that has begun to show up in opinion pages.

"There is an increasing tendency to go to sources that reflect your political ideology," she said.

Opinion pages are supposed to foster dialogue, but McBride said letters or other submissions that contain little else but screaming undermines dialogue by turning away readers from writing responses.

"At minimum, the speech should not be racist or offensive to religious, ethnic or minority groups," McBride said. "You can criticize issues without calling people names and without inciting violence."

Kay Semion of the Daytona Beach (FIa.) News Journal, who is president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, agreed.

"A good lively editorial page can focus on issues without looking at classes of people," she said. …