COMMENTARY: Speech Boundaries

by Nov 2, 2020OPINIONS





You would be hard-pressed to find a group of individuals who are more dedicated to free speech than the staff of the Cherokee One Feather. We are in the information dissemination business. Editor after editor, journalist after journalist have had the philosophy of making sure the newspaper reflects the views of the Qualla Boundary community, the members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the readership. Censorship is a dirty word to us and we do everything we can to present your views and opinions in their original form, and that includes the hundreds of thousands of posts and comments that you contribute to the One Feather Facebook page and other social media. 

However, there are times that we must hide and even delete comments from the page. When that happens, it is not done lightly. Typically, the decision to suppress speech is, at the very least, deliberated by part or all the Editorial Board. 

The Editorial Board is a governing body to the One Feather and particularly to the editor. Their job is to establish policies for the publication. Between the Cherokee Code, the Code of Ethics, and the Editorial Board policies, the staff of the One Feather has a pretty clear picture of what is acceptable speech and what is not. I am typically the one who has to make the final call on whether to permit speech to be published at the paper, because that is what I was hired to do, but I use all of those resources and the feedback of the staff and board on any material that is up for consideration for being removed from the publication. 

We cross-check and scrutinize our work and the work of others to help us be as objective as possible in our policing of the public pages. Each of us has personal bias that may potentially color how we moderate the pages, and we want to make sure to filter our decisions as thoroughly as possible and always on the side of free speech.

Opinions on free speech are as broad and diverse as there are individuals who read the One Feather. On the Facebook page alone, there are over 44,000 people who “like” the page and over 47,000 people who “follow” the page. In the month of October alone, the Cherokee One Feather reached nearly 600,000 people. And each one of you folks have the opportunity to speak your mind on the One Feather page. That’s in addition to those who may tweet, post on Instagram, YouTube, or, if you are really old-fashioned, send a hardcopy letter to the editor. And, yes, I still get those letters in the mail. 

It was not always so. Just eight short years ago, when I was hired to this position, use of social media by the One Feather was not permitted. Commentary and letters to the editor were heavily controlled and censored. Other than thank you letters, you rarely saw opinion pieces and it was limited to print, which, in the only statistical audit known to have been done on the paper said the print “reach” of the One Feather was about 5000 people. The newspaper had a website at the time, but with no way to effectively support it with social media, there was little traffic on the site. Prior editors were subject to significant governmental scrutiny and censorship. Even with a Free Press Act in place, the road to true journalistic autonomy was and is a rocky road. To put it mildly, we have come a long way. And the readership and staff have been making the journey together.

From time to time, we do have to address speech on our pages. When it is necessary to hide or remove a comment, we are typically accused of violating the United States’ First Amendment law. And while we are a “sovereign” nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee One Feather does have an obligation to abide by federal law. But even the U.S. Supreme Court has set guidelines, parameters if you will, for certain types of speech that do not fall under the protection of the First Amendment. Those include obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, true threats, and speech integral to already criminal conduct. 

Our own tribal laws and policies also identify some examples of speech as unacceptable. In addition, speech, when in a public forum, should be subject to a community standard-not in the expression of opinion but in the manner of delivering that opinion. History and current culture aide in the determination of whether material will meet a community standard. 

The One Feather never tells anyone that they do not have the right to say what they want to say in any way they want to say it. But, when you want to say it in the community paper in its various iterations, what you say and the way you say it matters. 

Most of us would not say certain words or talk about certain subjects in the presence of a child. Most of us would speak a certain way while in the presence of an elder or a veteran. And most of us would tailor our speech differently in front of a member of the clergy or spiritual leaders. Our public speech in all forms is likely much different than our private speech. Many times, when we are posting on social media, we have no idea what the demographics are for the people who are seeing our comments and posts. Anyone of any age could be sitting behind a computer screen reading every word. To some adults, it may be common practice to pepper their speech with profanity, but even they would likely hold back certain words if they knew a child would be listening.  

I don’t have a demographic background breakdown by age on our social media, but my educated guess is that, of those nearly 600,000 people reached by One Feather posts last month, the number of children viewing our pages might be in the thousands and elders might be in the tens of thousands. We have an obligation to them, and, more importantly, to the members of our Tribe, to ensure that no one is repulsed or intimidated by speech in the paper to the point that they would stop reading or, worse yet, stop feeling comfortable sharing their opinions on the One Feather public pages. 

To the best of our ability, the staff and Editorial Board will try to provide an environment conducive to that, the free expression of thoughts and ideas. Hopefully, most of you will find it a good outlet for your views. Unfortunately, there will always be some who feel that environment is not acceptable and that they are being restricted. 

We want everyone to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. It is important that we all express our opinions. It is part of our freedom. It is also important that we respect our community. It is part of preserving our way of life.