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Free speech takes a hit in our nation's newsrooms

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2003


Bill Cotterell is back at work at the Tallahassee Democrat.

Cotterell, the man his paper bills as the Capitol Curmudgeon, is not behaving in curmudgeonly fashion, though. He's keeping his head down.

Cotterell, a political writer and columnist, was suspended without pay for a week after he spoke his mind in an e-mail to a reader.

Dangerous stuff, that.

The reader was unhappy about a cartoon on the Democrat Web site. In it, a Middle Eastern man was driving a Ryder truck that carried a nuclear missile. The caption read: "What would Mohammed drive?"

The reader complained to Cotterell. He defended the cartoon, saying Arabs should get over their animosity toward Israel after all these years.

"OK, they can squat around the camel-dung fire and grumble about it, or they can put their bottoms in the air five times a day and pray for deliverance; that's their business. And I don't give a damn if Israel kills a few in collateral damage while defending itself. So be it."

The first thing to point out is that I don't have to agree with what he said. But I am obligated to my bones to defend it.

Second, although Cotterell might wish now that he used gentler words, he certainly didn't choose the most inflammatory language in the dictionary.

Still, his bosses fell all over themselves, declaring that what he said runs "counter to to many of the values we hold dearest, among them tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness."

You will notice the part that's missing in that laundry list of the fair and decent: the part about free speech.

If it's good enough for suspended University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, and the newspapers that have rallied to his cause, it surely is good enough for Bill Cotterell.

One of those newspapers was Cotterell's own. In September 2001, when Al-Arian was suspended from USF over his alleged terrorist sympathies, the Democrat declared the university's actions "deeply troubling." Suspending Al-Arian "bankrupts USF's academic status and sullies its reputation among those who put the First Amendment first."

So where does the Democrat put it?

This is what Cotterell is guilty of: He said what he thought without thinking about it first. He talked like a lot of Americans who are angry and suspicious about things Arabic.

You can see where his bosses at the Democrat wouldn't like this. They don't want their writers being rude to their readers. On a hot-button issue like this one, they don't want their writers spouting stereotypes.

But there's a balance to be struck with other values of the business. Time was, newspapers weren't afraid of offending people. They didn't jump at every chance to second-guess themselves.

This was especially true with columnists, the writers who are given the latitude to write from head and heart and say, in cut-to-the-chase language, just what they think. On some days, when what they say crosses the line, the column isn't published. In the lingo of the business, it's killed. But the columnist isn't punished.

That's what's bothering me here. Bill Cotterell misspoke. The Democrat could have put him in a room, shut the door, and told him firmly to choose better words the next time. They could have had him write an apology to the reader.

Instead they suspended him and docked him a week's pay.

Last year, a top editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune told a reader she would not vote for Katherine Harris for Congress. The editor, who had a long and distinguished record, confessed her bias. For this, she was forced to resign.

This is where my business is now. We're super-sensitive. We're afraid. In trying to be what we think is fairminded, we have plain and simple gone too far.

-- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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