Our freedoms include free speech | Editorial

Freedom of speech is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas. In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute, and instead is subject to limitations, as with obscenity and incitement to commit a crime.

Earlier this week, The Whidbey News-Times website was hit by an onslaught of online comments directed at an elderly woman who had written a letter critical of the noise accompanying touch-and-go practice at the Coupeville Outlying Field.

The majority of comments posted voiced support for the Navy and strong opposition to the letter-writer’s opinion.

In a community like ours, where support for the military is strong, visible and vocal, that comes as no surprise.

By Wednesday night, long after our office had closed for the day, the newspaper website was hit with a torrent of online comments. Many included obscenities or hateful remarks. But those comments paled in comparison to the ones that provided the letter writer’s home address and home phone number and urged people to terrorize her. Some people actually followed through on those threats, repeatedly calling and driving by this woman’s home throughout the night.

The worst online comments encouraged violence against her – even rape.

Speech that incites violence against someone is a serious crime. The Island County Sheriff’s Office and authorities from the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station are now investigating the member of the military who made the rape threat. Investigations of additional Facebook users who posted threats against the letter writer may follow.

Overnight the volume of comments far exceeded our ability to monitor. Ultimately we determined the only way we could prevent additional threats was to turn off the commenting option altogether.

Now, because the original letter remains on the website, people insist the newspaper is now allowing only one opinion. They are demanding that we censor this woman’s letter because they disagree with it.

The fact is, we are not censoring anyone’s opinion. Those who want to air an opinion should send a signed letter to the editor or post their opinion on Facebook. However, we cannot allow comments that threaten harm to someone.

We are very disappointed to see that some of the threats and nasty comments came from people who identified themselves as members of the military. Navy leadership must be disappointed about this as well. But so far, the public response from NAS Whidbey has been “no comment.”

The Whidbey Island community – and especially Oak Harbor – is extremely supportive of our Navy neighbors. We all are grateful to the members of the military who make great sacrifices to defend and protect our nation.

Many of the commenters were angry that the newspaper had supported this woman’s free-speech rights “Don’t you know that we risk our lives to protect your freedom?”

We know the members of the military who posted those comments are aware of which freedoms they are protecting.

And free speech is one of them.


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