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  • Last modified 218 days ago (Dec. 17, 2020)

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Public pillory and secret scheming

Journalists and politicians appear to have one thing in common. They willingly subject themselves to all manner of criticism — often of a personal nature.

This week’s Letters to the Editor contains a response from Marion County commissioners to an editorial published here four weeks ago.

The editorial, entitled “Eppur si mouve — even if politicians won’t,” was written after three of them rejected unanimous advice from the county’s health nurse, the county’s public health consultant, 27 county health-care providers, 89 county residents, and a county school superintendent.

By a 3-2 vote, they refused to adopt an emergency pandemic rule, later forced on them by the state, requiring residents to wear face masks while with others in public.

We readily admit we excoriated the three commissioners who voted against the requirement while seemingly flouting their rejection by refusing to wear masks, despite being required to do so by a city ordinance.

There was nothing baseless about our pointing out what they refused to do nor with our pointing out fringe viewpoints some of them publicly have professed on other occasions. A second letter this week, received several days before theirs, makes comments along those lines about one of the three.

We accused them of dogmatically rejecting science much as is done by adherents of abhorrent cults. That allegation may be unpleasant. It may even be unfortunate, given the sacrifice anyone serving in public office makes. But it was not unsubstantiated, groundless, or uncorroborated.

Whether we were arrogant and irresponsible is an opinion. We don’t think so, but we allow that it’s their right to believe otherwise.

Stating what we wrote was false, libelous, and lacking in responsibility, however, is in itself a false and libelous statement. And it demonstrates unwillingness to take responsibility for such insensitive comments as theirs when they insisted too few people had died to make masks necessary.

We aren’t going to sue them, of course. We can’t, any more than they can sue us. The First Amendment guarantees there’s no such thing as a false opinion, only a false fact. And anyone who willingly makes himself or herself a public figure — as both elected officials and editorial writers do — is largely immune from being able to win a libel suit absent actual malice and reckless disregard for truth.

That’s what makes the whole process of commissioners the letter so confusing. It was written and sent after a long series of closed-door executive sessions and was, according to the county counselor, a part of what was discussed in those executive sessions.

The stated rationale for refusing to allow anyone in the public to hear what commissioners said was that it was protected by attorney-client privilege.

What, exactly, could commissioners have been planning to do, given that a defamation suit would be constitutionally impossible? Were other acts of retribution for our criticism of their stance on face masks being considered?

Like many county businesses, particularly amid a long decline in local business activity, we find county government to be an important customer. We used to sell printing, paper, office supplies, furniture, and office equipment. We lost most of that business to big-box operations out of the county. Now our main revenue from the county comes from publishing required public notices.

Losing any of that declining business to some back-room deal cooked up in retribution for our editorials would hurt.

Are we paranoid? Perhaps. But one commissioner prominently mentioned adopting a strategy just like this during a public tirade against us Nov. 23.

If that’s what commissioners were discussing, we’d ask that they show us the same courtesy we showed them by making our criticism of their behavior public, rather than something schemed — quite possibly, illegally — behind closed doors.

Whether it demonstrates arrogance or determination on our part, commissioners will have to decide. But either way, we can promise that the county will have to completely bankrupt us to silence us.

We aren’t in this to make the lives of elected officials easier. We’re in this business to make sure the public is informed — whether the news we report is good or bad. Financial threats won’t deter us.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Dec. 17, 2020

 

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