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What to do about offensive free speech?

‘Let me begin by making it clear that this is not about free speech,†said Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez as he launched an attack on free speech at a rally on the doorstep of America’s oldest continually published newspaper last week.  

The mayor was there to demand — to demand, mind you — that the Hartford Courant stop publishing what he sees as hateful and racist comments on its Web site even though governments, as personified by mayors or governors or whoever, have no business making demands on a free press.

The mayor said he just wanted to talk about hate speech, but his demonstration was really about free speech because the First Amendment, as Justice Holmes reminded us long ago, protects not just “free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate.â€

Hate and racist speech has become an issue because the Courant, like many other papers, operates an anonymous, unedited “open forum†on Courant.com while continuing to maintain its tradition of allowing only signed letters to the editor in the newspaper. These conflicting journalism standards have led to the results one would expect and comments concerning Hartford have contained racist and other examples of hate speech that would never have made their way into the paper’s letters column.

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But there is reason to suspect the mayor was also motivated to demand and demonstrate by an interest in deflecting attention from some of his own shortcomings that have been vigorously reported by the newspaper. The mayor faces issues ranging from his inability to control crime to allegations of corruption, currently being investigated by a grand jury.  

Many of the comments painful to the mayor were written after two horrible acts of violence in the capital city: a daytime street assault on former deputy mayor Nick Carbone that left him critically injured and a hit and run that resulted in the paralysis of Angel Torres, an elderly pedestrian, whose plight seemed to be ignored by passersby and passing cars. Street cameras recorded the hit and run and the crime has been shown repeatedly around the country on cable news outlets. There have been no arrests in the two crimes, which may be as good a reason as any for the mayor to change the subject.

In a letter to the Courant and its parent Tribune Co., Perez whined that writers to its forum called city residents barbarians and compared Hartford to strife-torn Bierut. Tough talk but hardly hate speech. In fact, most of the tough talk would not be in the hate or racist category, even to the most politically correct.    

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But you can also find the kind of junk we would expect from those who revel in venting their hatred without fear of being identified. The stuff can be so bad that even First Amendment purists would have no quarrel with the newspaper editing these rants or better yet, requiring the writers to identify themselves in return for their few seconds of fame.  The First Amendment gives anyone the right to say or write whatever he wants, but doesn’t require his musings to be published.  

So, why do newspapers continue to insist on letters to the editor being signed and subjected to editing while letters to their Web sites have no such constraints? The answer may be about money as the papers, looking to the Internet as their future, have found these forums are a popular feature and they are reluctant to do anything to discourage participation, even from nuts.  

And, with diminished staffs, they lack the resources to monitor the comment boards. The Courant and other Tribune papers have outsourced the comment boards to a company in California which, the paper reported, has software to eliminate certain offensive material and monitors published material when readers complain.

The situation is messy, but there are reasonable solutions like editing and insisting the writers identify themselves. These modifications would deal with the most blatant racist, hateful material and still leave room for a lively forum with lots of good, old fashioned attacks on the mayor.

Dick Ahles is a retired journalist from Simsbury. E-mail him at dahles@hotmail.com.

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