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Free speech is like oxygen

By Dink Nesmith People ask, “What’s your description of a good newspaper?” I believe a good newspaper is a smorgasbord of information – something for everyone. A good newspaper also is a community talking to itself. If news is the lifeblood of the paper, the editorial page is the backbone. I evaluate a newspaper’s strength by its willingness to take stands on important matters and stimulate discussion. I’ve never seen a newspaper with too many letters to the editor. That’s why I’m never offended when people spit poison darts at me, even those hiding in anonymity online. When the venom spews, I don’t even duck. The best defense is to ignore them. Besides, that’s why God gives us two ears – one for objectionable commentary to go in, another one for it to go out. What makes the First Amendment so precious is that it allows us to be as outlandish as we choose. It covers both ends of the extremes and everything in the middle. For it to work, it must. That means most of us, the moderates in the middle, are safely covered as the ultra-left and ultra-right-wingers duke it out. Freedom of speech in America is akin to oxygen. Free means free for everyone. But some don’t get the point, so they call or e-mail, inflamed and ready for verbal or cyber fisticuffs Others want to do more, as in punch me in the nose. I’m ready to listen to their point of view, especially when civility rules. What startles me is that so many people believe the First Amendment applies only to them. As long as I agree with them, I’m a good guy and they chant, “Tell it like it is, brother!” But if I write something they don’t like, I’m a no-good, egg-sucking scalawag. Immediately, you’re pigeonholed as a Democrat, Republican or just plain idiot. I don’t care to wear any political party’s straitjacket. I prefer being an American, and I like to think for myself. In fact, this is what I want on my tombstone: “Lord, he was different, but at least the old fool was fair.” Where has our tolerance gone? Why have we become toxic and polarized in our beliefs? What has made so many people slobbering, rabid-dog mad? Every year this uncivil behavior gets worse. What got us on this hateful name-calling jag? Talk radio? Talking heads on TV? Flame-throwing newspaper columnists? Actually, I think the Internet has helped to bring out the worst in personalities. Anonymous commentary enables people to climb into sniper stands and shoot bullets they’d never fire face-to-face. You see this every week in Athens. Online commentary quickly turns into a contest to see who can be the most cynical and/or the snottiest. That’s why I ignore those kinds of remarks. Instead, I try hard to be open-minded. After all, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions. A good newspaper should be a forum for those expressions, within the boundaries of libel and slander. A good newspaper’s pages should be steeped in the First Amendment. Opinion is, in my opinion, there for you to take it or leave it. You can agree or disagree. You can crank out your own comment. You can even curse and flail your arms. But remember this: Your right of expression stops within a quarter-inch of my nose. ’¢ Dink NeSmith is president of Community Newspapers Inc. in Athens. Send e-mail to

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