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Free speech rights, and the right to exercise sound judgment

Constitutional protection of freedom of speech is one of our most fundamental and cherished rights. Each of us may say or otherwise express — with hardly any restraints imposed — whatever we choose. Whether our statements are factual or not; whether our opinion is keenly insightful or woefully uninformed; whether we are truthful and respectful as an Eagle Scout or as dissembling as the most brazen politician — we the people are free to speak our minds, for better or worse.

One example squarely in the worse category is a letter to the editor published on the Central Kitsap Reporter’s website the day before a rock band called Hell’s Belles played a concert at the Kitsap County Fair. The letter writer exercised her free speech rights by calling the all-female AC/DC tribute band “a satanic music group.” This self-proclaimed Christian also expressed her contempt for “you devil-worshippers,” though it’s not entirely clear if she was referring to the gals in the band, the taxpayer-funded fair’s organizers who booked the show, the Kitsap Sun for its feature story previewing the Hell’s Belles concert, or all of the above.

It’s understandable if you’re perhaps thinking it’s odd that it was a Kitsap Sun article that sparked this woman’s furor, yet the vicious letter she wrote in response was published in the weekly Central Kitsap Reporter.

Well, it turns out, unsurprisingly, that she sent her letter first to the Sun but was rejected. Editor David Nelson confirmed this. Without dissing the letter writer, he tactfully said the letter didn’t meet the standards of what’s acceptable to publish in a community newspaper.

So the Sun exercised an important right that’s not as explicitly stated in the Constitution — the right to use good judgment. The other newspaper did not.

The Central Kitsap Reporter did gain something from publishing the letter from this tormented soul. More than 400 online comments were posted on the newspaper’s website. That’s an astonishing response for a publication that might draw a handful of comments, or more often none, on typical news stories.

The paper’s editor, Leslie Kelly (no relation to me), said she was surprised at the torrent of responses, but she characterized it as a “debate.”

It seems more like piling on, since the vast majority of commenters rebuked, reviled and ridiculed the woman for her ad hominem attack on the women in the band.

The musicians, by the way, have local connections and have played concerts in the Bremerton area for more than a decade. Having a strong local following partly explains the huge number of commenters (that and Facebook.)

Now you might conclude the letter writer deserved to be shamed and brought it all on herself. I would argue, however, that as mean-spirited and haughty as her tone was, she did not deserve what in essence was a public stoning on the internet. She should have been protected from herself, which would have happened if the CKR had recognized that her letter obviously would draw such derision, and not published it.

It was Kelly’s decision, and she was planning to write about the situation in an upcoming editorial. But in fairness, it should be noted that she had asked her newspaper’s publisher and fellow editors at other Sound Publishing papers in the area what they thought of the letter, and regrettably, none of them tried to dissuade her from publishing it.

Since Kelly defended publishing the letter by saying the writer was just expressing her beliefs, I asked if she would publish a letter that makes an equally baseless claim — for instance, that President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim. She said no, because that can be proven to be false; but apparently the woman’s claim that the Hell’s Belles “work for the devil” can’t be definitively proven false, so she gets the benefit of the doubt. And as a result, the community newspaper did a disservice to the community by giving this misguided woman a public platform to unfairly defame the women in the band.

The notorious letter concludes with the writer’s ominous warning to all the aforementioned devil-worshippers that “your lack of love of God should scare you.”

Doubtful that will happen, nor that the woman will reconsider her views in light of all the criticism heaped upon her.

All the uproar over music, free speech and that other treasured constitutional right — to freedom of religion, and from religion — calls to mind an old favorite song by the Austin Lounge Lizards, who incidentally would be an excellent choice for next year’s fair if they’re available.

Their tune that skewers the self-righteous is called “Jesus Loves Me, But He Can’t Stand You.”

For more information: A link to the Letter to the Editor, and a link to the Central Kitsap Reporter followup article.

 
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