OPINION: About those offensive letters

George Mathewson

I had an interesting exchange with a reader last week about free speech and what newspapers should and should not publish.

It was all triggered by a March 12 letter to the editor from one Keith Patrick, who argued that homosexuality “is not normal” and that a person’s sexual orientation is a matter of choice.

Not surprisingly, his Bible-based opinions drew a strong response. Last week The Journal published a trio of letters from readers who took Mr. Patrick to task, thoughtfully and articulately.

But it was an email exchange with another reader, who denounced us for printing Mr. Patrick’s letter in the first place, that really got me thinking.

“One of you needs to explain to me how a backwards … opinion piece like this ends up in a local paper,” she wrote.

“This is completely inappropriate to publish …  your readers, particularly among the LGBTQ community deserve a prompt apology.”

(The email was signed “Halley,” which for pronoun simplicity I will assume is a she).

I replied to her that the “Comment” pages of the newspaper are designed for just that – comment, and that the opinions expressed there don’t reflect the views of The Journal. I also invited her to write a letter.

But ‘Halley’ was having none of it.

“I’m very aware what an opinion piece is. I went to school for journalism,” she replied. “I know the process and I also know there should be an editor there to make sure what’s being published isn’t offensive or hateful …”

In a subsequent email she wrote:

“This is not about freedom of speech. This is about the newspaper’s sensitivity (or lack thereof) towards the people being targeted.”

But, apparently, it must be said, publishing Mr. Patrick’s letter is ALL about freedom of speech.

Each week The Journal runs two to three pages of columns and letters. Any reader who wishes to participate (350 words max) need only provide their full name and contact information for verification purposes.

For what it’s worth, I believe Mr. Patrick is wrong. Indeed, I disagree with many of the positions espoused in our pages.

But I also believe it a basic duty of a newspaper in a democratic society to provide a forum for thoughts and ideas, even if some are distasteful.

Free expression is not a licence to abuse, of course. There are limits. But when newspapers stop publishing letters because some readers may find them offensive, then we are all in trouble.

Mr. Patrick’s letter was neither libelous nor hate speech. And he had the courage of conviction to sign his name to it, which is more than can be said for anonymous critics like “Halley.”

Freedom of speech, if we truly cherish it, can’t mean only the freedom to hear what you want to hear.