Precinct 333

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Does Freedom Of The Press Still Exist?

The last time I checked, freedom of the press was still enshrined in the First Amendment. That includes the right of a newspaper to make editorial decisions about what it fit and proper to publish – especially in the way of opinion pieces.

That protection will be gone if the Arizona Supreme Court upholds a lower court judge’s decision to allow a trial in a lawsuit that alleges that a letter to the editor caused emotional distress to members of the local Muslim community. The letter, published as attacks on US troops in Iraq increased, suggested that American soldiers in Iraq should take reprisals by killing Muslims in nearby mosques.

Two Tucson men filed a class-action lawsuit against the Gannett Co. newspaper on Jan. 13, 2004 over a letter printed on Dec. 2, 2003 as deadly attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq mounted.

The letter prompted some fearful Tucson Muslims to keep their children home from religious schools and resulted in letters of protests from readers and a published apology by the Citizen, which also sent staff members to meet with members of a local mosque.

In a Dec. 6, 2003 column apologizing for the newspaper's decision to print the letter, Publisher and Editor Michael A. Chihak said the letter's author had written a second letter to clarify that his comments only referred to military actions in combat zones.

Now let’s say it outright – the sentiment in the letter is somewhat disturbing. The idea that the US military should take random revenge on individuals based upon religion is repulsive. But it is also protected speech, not, as the individuals who sued claim, a call for violence that could legitimately include attacks on Muslims in America.

Judge Leslie Miller of Pima County Superior Court in Tucson on May 10 allowed the lawsuit's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress to stand, setting the stage for pretrial fact-finding now put on hold during the appeal to the Supreme Court.

"Clearly, reasonable minds could differ in determining whether the publication of the letter rose to the level of extreme and outrageous conduct," Miller wrote.

No, judge, reasonable minds cannot differ on that matter. There is no threat, nor was there any incitement to violence. The extreme and outrageous conduct here is the use of the courts to suppress political speech, and your decision to ignore the clearly delineated limits of government power.


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