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Free Speech And The Letter Hive



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As the editor of The Newtown Bee, one thing I love is to receive letters to the editor for our Letter Hive. A strong letter column is the backbone of public discourse, and it’s good to see members of the public still reaching out via the best way to reach an entirely Newtown audience, with our Hive. Even when we receive an occasional letter critical of the paper, we see it as a duty to run as many letters as we can.

Like all newspapers, however, we must maintain standards on how the letters are submitted and whose letters we can feature in that section. As the Hive is a Newtown forum, we generally limit writers to Newtown residents.

Occasionally we do receive out-of-town submissions. Normally, if they identify as a former resident, we will print the letter. We do also receive plenty of letters from folks with no Newtown ties, and, as is our right, we often decline to print them.

One letter received recently left me shaking my head, however. This writer, based in a state on the other side of the country, was displeased that a former editor of the paper had declined to publish their previous letters and decided to call the paper out on it, showing a flagrant misunderstanding of the principle of free speech that seems all too common nowadays.

The writer, in the letter, likened themselves to Paul Revere, spreading word that the British were coming. In this metaphor, The Bee’s editor told Revere that they would not publish this important information because they were not from Newtown, and they were submitting the same information to other areas. The writer then went on to wonder if The Bee’s editor was secretly a redcoat, did not want to inform or educate the public, or did not care about free speech.

Ignoring the fact that the whole metaphor was flawed since opinions on national politics hardly rise to the level of urgent information that must be immediately shared for public safety, the letter makes an assertation that can be answered with a question: At the most basic level, what is our Hive for?

In answer: it may seem obvious, but each part of our newspaper should serve a specific purpose in informing our specific readership about things of interest to them. Our readership is generally the residents of Newtown, Connecticut. We are a single community, weekly newspaper. In newspaperspeak, we are hyperlocal.

Like all sections of our paper, the Letter Hive conforms to the standard of serving a specific purpose. It can’t be the “Wild West,” accepting any content.

We can’t allow residents to freely share their poetry; it is not the correct forum.

We can’t allow a resident to list the top ten reasons they think their neighbor stinks. That would be juvenile and could cross into libel.

And we can’t allow non-residents to express political opinions of no direct relation or interest to Newtown.

The Hive's purpose is to be an opinion forum for Newtown residents to share their opinions with Newtown residents.

Requiring letter writers to be a resident is no different than limiting word count to 500 words, or to require a phone number so that we can determine a letter writer is who they claim to be, both of which are also requirements to be in our Letter Hive.

And it is not a free speech issue. The First Amendment only prohibits the government from infringing speech. The Bee is not the government; it is a privately owned family business. The principle of free speech extends to all, and that includes the paper itself in deciding what it wants to print and doesn’t want to print. The Bee actually reserves the right to reject any letter for any reason, but rarely uses that ability.

The letter writer’s right to free speech is in no way infringed upon due to its lack of appearance in print in The Bee. The letter writer is free to express their opinion in any other forum they wish, and there are many venues to do so.

The letter writer’s metaphor of a newspaper editor ignoring Paul Revere is, as stated earlier, flawed. That is not what The Bee is doing when it declines to run a letter. What is actually happening is more akin to The Bee editor hearing a knock and opening the door. If it’s a friend — a resident of Newtown — the editor welcomes them in and offers to let them sit for a cup of coffee and conversation. If it’s Paul Revere with urgent information, the editor assigns a reporter to develop a story, or accepts a press release to run elsewhere in the paper, as those are news stories, not letters. But this writer was not a friend, and not Paul Revere. They were more akin to a door-to-door salesman. They were free to say their sales pitch, but The Bee was free to decline what was on offer and close the door in their face.

Some observations on the First Amendment and how it applies to a newspaper's letters column.
Comments are open. Be civil.

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