Tags Posts tagged with "Freedom of Speech"

Freedom of Speech

Photo from Christine Pendergast

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

Spring is supposed to be a time for new beginnings. Our spring has been marred by senseless shootings across the country, further inflamed by hateful rhetoric on both sides of the aisle that does not address the real heart of our social mayhem.

The vaccine which is supposed to be used as an instrument of healing in some circles is being used as a weapon. We have elected leaders that don’t lead but rather fuel the discontent and polarization that has become so infectious across our country.

It is springtime. Let’s talk about new beginnings, renewal and another way to talk with each other that is life-giving. Words matter. They can heal and help or hurt and destroy.

We need to challenge those with hurtful and despicable rhetoric to express their strong feelings in words that are respectful — words that don’t incite but rather encourage a deeper and more productive conversation about the things that really matter and have a profound impact on our community.

At the beginning of April, a young 16-year-old female Native American and African-American sophomore in high school wrote an op-ed piece in Newsday entitled “Why I sat for the Pledge of Allegiance.” Social media ripped her apart and she was threatened and harassed.

After reading her opinion piece, I decided to have my college and graduate students take a look at her article and discuss it. I saw for the first time what our future leadership could do. 

These students had a real in-depth conversation on a very delicate topic. It was impressive to see them exercise their well-developed critical thinking skills. They were genuinely sociologically mindful. They looked at every aspect of that student’s opinion. Not all agreed with her choice to be seated but they all agreed with her right to self-expression without harassment. They all condemned the despicable ad hominem attacks and rhetoric directed at her.

Ultimately, every class focused on the injustices she raised which led to a lively conversation of where do we go from here? How do we address these inequalities and hold people more accountable? It was refreshing to listen to the next generation of leaders speak passionately about human rights, social justice and express the desire to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem.

On October 14, 2020, Dr. Christopher Pendergast, a dynamic teacher, motivational speaker and founder of the A.L.S. Ride for Life, died quietly at his home in Miller Place surrounded by his family. He was 71.

On April 28, Dr. Pendergast would have celebrated his 72nd birthday. Although he is no longer with us physically, his spirit lives on with Ride for Life’s mission and his endless acts of kindness and love that he did for so many while he walked among us.

Before he died he and his wife wrote a very powerful book entitled “Blink Spoken Here.” The last words of this exceptional story say “speech is freedom. Communication is the connection to the outside world. We all have a right to speak and to be heard … even if it’s only one blink at a time … Never be afraid to speak up. Your opinions matter.” Amen!

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Stock photo
Leah Dunaief

By Leah S. Dunaief

It may have been the start of a new year last week, but life certainly hasn’t calmed down much. We are witnessing history in the making. Demonstrators who had traveled from all over the United States to Washington, D.C. last Wednesday turned from listening to President Trump rage to marching on the Capitol. Once there, many broke into the building and caused vandalism, chaos and death. Thanks to instantaneous news flashes, we heard it and saw it happen, and now we are living through the consequences.

One of the consequences is bans of certain accounts by social media, led by Twitter and Facebook. Is that censorship? Is that an assault on our Freedom of Speech enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution?

A simple way to offer an answer is to take you into the world in which community newspapers and media operate. As you know, we are the ones who report on the news closest to our daily lives, the events and issues that concern us here in the villages and towns where we live, send our children to school and most of us work. We report comprehensively on local people, local politicians and local businesses that would otherwise be overlooked by the bigger dailies and networks. We are the watchdogs on behalf of the local citizenry.

Here are the rules by which we must publish:

While we print opinions as well as facts, opinions must be clearly labelled as such and are usually confined to two or three pages specifically designated for Letters to the Editor and Editorials. We also publish pieces called “Your Turn,” or “Our Turn,” again as opinion or analysis. Everyone has a right to their opinion, and the publisher has a right to its policies about those articles and letters. Our policy is to publish opinions in as balanced a way as we are sent submissions, subject to libel and good taste.

Libel rules are more straightforward than good taste, which is, of course, subjective. But here is the bottom line: publishers have the final say in what they publish because they are private, not governmental enterprises. Freedom of Speech, which specifically prohibits censorship by the government, does not apply to us. Decisions made by private businesses on what to publish are not First Amendment issues. And those decisions may reflect any number of concerns that may affect the company: financial considerations, the environment in which the publisher operates and whether the publication is an avowed partisan or an independent one.

We, for example, are an independent news media company, supporting neither major party unilaterally but rather our own sense of merit.

We are responsible for the accuracy of the facts in our stories. Do we sometimes err? Of course. When we make a mistake, our policy is to print a correction in the same place that we ran the error, even if that’s on the front page. When we run ads, by the way, we are also responsible for the facts in them — although not the advertiser’s opinions, which still are subject to considerations of libel and good taste. And when we run political ads, we must print who paid for the ad in the ad itself. When it is a group under a generic name rather than an individual, we must have on file the names of the executive officers of that group and those must be subject to review by any member of the public.

Do we have the legal right to refuse an ad or an opinion or a misstatement of facts? As a private company, we do. Further, just as it is against the law to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is none because that is not protected free speech, we have the civic responsibility to vet misstatements and untruths. And while we consider our papers safety valves for community members to let off steam with their strongly held opinions, we do not publish just to add fuel to a fire.

Twitter and Facebook and the rest who consider themselves publishers of news and not just telephone companies also have a responsibility to the public.

That, of course, raises another issue. Do we want so much power in the hands of a few high tech moguls, whose messages instantly circle the world? Or should they, like us, be subject to regulatory control?

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In an attempt to promote transparency, the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics recently proposed requiring public relations consultants to register as lobbyists if they are trying to influence editorial writers.

That would mean any public relations professionals who contacts a reporter or editorial board in an attempt to get the media to advance their client’s message would be considered to be delivering a lobbying message.

Several New York public relations firms and New York Press Association members immediately spoke out against this proposal, and we side with them and share their concerns.

To force anyone to report to the government before they speak to a reporter seems dangerous, and almost medieval. It treads on freedom of speech if the government is effectively regulating newspaper content, and interfering with a newsroom staff’s ability to independently and objectively judge its sources on its own. On top of that, it is an example of government butting its nose into what are largely privately owned companies — a place it has no business giving orders.

On the surface, it seems as though JCOPE is paying the press a compliment, saying the news media are so valuable that it wants to help preserve the public watchdog’s objectivity. But, in an ironic twist, within the same stroke it would be compromising the independence of the Fourth Estate by controlling its sources.

Freedom of the press is one of the rights America was built upon and relies upon to this day, and this move would tramp on the media’s liberty to print the issues and concerns of the public without needing permission from the government. One of the main jobs of a reporter is to evaluate whether a source is credible and whether a story is newsworthy. Let’s keep this task out of the hands of the government and in the hands of the people who make these decisions every day.

As a newspaper that takes pride in serving the community before anyone else, we stand against this proposal to restrict our communication and we hope you will too.

Claims district violated his First Amendment rights

Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano, second from left, was punished for ad-libbing a line during the school’s variety show last month. Photo by Barbara Donlon

A Miller Place High School student is suing the district for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights after he was punished for making an ad-libbed remark about the superintendent’s salary during a variety show.

At the Thursday, March 26 variety show, Kyle Vetrano, senior class president, appeared in a skit poking fun at the high school’s new bathroom policy, which allows one student at a time to use the bathroom in an effort to combat drug use and sales. According to the senior, he improvised the line that later got him into trouble.

“Is this what our superintendent gets paid all that money for? To write bathroom policy,” Vetrano said in the skit.

Following the remark, Vetrano said school administrators told him that he was not allowed to participate in the Friday night performance and was banned from school grounds during the show, as the line was not included in the pre-approved script.

“Kyle exercised his political speech rights, which are not to be violated by any government agency what so ever, including his own school,” Vetrano’s attorney John Ray, of Miller Place, said at a press conference held outside the high school on Thursday.

Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano’s supporters rally on his behalf. Photo by Barbara Donlon
Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano’s supporters rally on his behalf. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Vetrano’s mom, Christine, said the district is bullying her son, which is why they decided to take a stand and file the lawsuit.

The high school senior said he told a harmless joke with no malicious intent and was singled out by the district because it was the superintendent he made the remark about. He claims other students also veered off script, but were not reprimanded or punished.

Vetrano said he apologized to Superintendent Marianne Higuera numerous times, but was allegedly told that if he continued to bring up the situation, his senior prom, awards night and graduation privileges could be revoked.

“I think as an American in this country we have a right to freedom of speech and I’m just embarrassed that the district I have been a part of my entire life completely violated my first amendment rights,” Vetrano said.

When reached for comment, the district’s public relations firm, Zimmerman/Edelson, Inc. referred to a letter from Higuera posted on the district’s website.

According to the March 31 letter, students were made aware of the consequences for breaking the rules, which have been consistent year-after-year. Higuera said she was not present at the performance, but was advised of the ad-libbed line.

“This current ad-libbing situation is simply an issue of rules and consequences and not about me as the superintendent,” Higuera stated in the letter.

According to Higuera’s letter, the district will continue to discuss the “one-person at a time” bathroom policy.

About 50 people rallied at the press conference. They marched and held signs in support of the senior.

“What do we want? Free speech!” the crowd shouted as they marched up to the district office.

The family is suing for monetary damages, but has yet to decide on an amount, according to Ray.

“I was the only one who ad-libbed about the superintendent, but my comments were not with any mal-intent,” Vetrano said. “They didn’t call her out by name and they were part of a skit that was completely satirical and comedic in nature.”