Thursday, February 22, 2007

Small Town Democracy & Freedom of the Press

I live in the Hudson Highlands, in a community that embodies the phrase "small town." There are many advantages to living in a place where everyone knows you and the sense of community is strong. There are disadvantages, too - particularly when it comes to local politics.

We have a new editor at the town newspaper, The Cornwall Local, and I have been watching with interest as she has been subjected to various intimidation tactics by the local pols. Finally, I wrote this letter to the editor, which is being published in tomorrow's edition.
To the Editor:

I was surprised to read that an elected official in the Town of Cornwall moved to decommission The Local as the official town newspaper, apparently in reaction to critical editorial coverage of the Town Board’s process in selecting a new police chief.

Editor Margaret Menge is doing a journalist’s job, reporting the facts on the front page and expressing her own viewpoint on the editorial page. Though our Board may not be happy with her questioning of their decision-making, it seems to me that the citizens of Cornwall have been well-served by her reporting of the process employed in picking a new chief.

President Bush has similar problems with the Washington Post and most likely views them with equal distaste, but he is wise enough not to forbid the paper access to his office. Our free press is a cornerstone of true democracy, as immortalized in 1789 by our Founding Fathers when they wrote and passed the Bill of Rights. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The ultimate statement on the freedom of the press comes from our founding rascal, Benjamin Franklin, who stirred up all sorts of controversy with his printing press in the early days of the Revolution. His famous editorial, “Apology for Printers,” stated: Printers are educated in the belief that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public; and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.

Franklin also wrote: Whoever would overthrow the Liberty of a Nation must begin by subduing the Freeness of Speech.

We should support The Cornwall Local, and urge our editor to do the most thorough and in-depth reporting that she can with the resources that she has. Then, finally, it is up to us as citizens to read, be informed, ask questions, form opinions, and ultimately, to vote. Then, and only then, are we fulfilling our obligations as citizens of this model (if messy) democracy.

Liz Nealon

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