Vail Daily column: First Amendment and the commentary page
After reading a column titled “Setting the record straight,” written by Pat Mitchell and published in the Saturday, May 13, edition of the Vail Daily, a concerned community member emailed me, calling into question my decision to allow Mitchell to use the newspaper as a forum to share his thoughts on homosexuality and the church.
As journalists, we live and die by the First Amendment, which protects all manner of expression, with a few notable exceptions. These exceptions have been defined by case law and include such things as obscenity, child pornography and inciting others to lawlessness.
When it comes to determining whether a submission makes it onto the commentary pages of the Vail Daily, the above-mentioned exceptions to free speech rarely, if ever, come into play. The three categories we are much more likely to come across are defamation, or in our case, since it’s written, libel; what’s called a “true threat,” which is a verbal assault that threatens physical harm to a specific person; and fighting words.
Fighting words are “those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,” wrote Justice Frank Murphy in the 1942 U.S. Supreme Court decision for Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire, a case that helped define those unprotected elements of speech.
Mitchell concluded his column by saying, “The Bible accepts homosexuals, both men and women, to the faith. They don’t, however, condone their sexual behavior. Churches welcome them willingly as they would adulterers, thieves and others seeking forgiveness.”
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By describing homosexuals in the same breath as adulterers and thieves, was Mitchell using fighting words, inciting immediate action from those who read his remarks and thereby wandering into the narrow realm of speech not protected by the First Amendment? I don’t believe so.
Whether or not I agree with Mitchell’s conclusion did not factor into my decision to print his column. If I censored every opinion that ran contrary to my own, then I would not be a very good steward of this newspaper. Instead, I weighed his words against established tenets of free speech and, after careful consideration, published his column.
I believe it’s critical that submissions to the commentary pages of the Vail Daily remain as free from my — or anyone else’s — intrusion as is possible under the law, in order to cultivate a robust community dialogue. As a newspaper, we cannot demand the protections provided us by the First Amendment if we don’t also uphold them within these pages.
Krista Driscoll is the editor of the Vail Daily. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.