Darrell Ehrlick: Freedom of speech isn't without cost

2013-11-10T00:00:00Z 2014-03-21T10:34:20Z Darrell Ehrlick: Freedom of speech isn't without costBy DARRELL EHRLICK The Billings Gazette
November 10, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Few stories in the past month have drawn more reader interest than Gazette reporter Eddie Gregg’s coverage of Max Lenington’s email. The embattled Yellowstone County assessor, treasurer and superintendent of county schools (yes, that’s all one job) came under fire when a public records request turned up an email full of epithets and several others that showed the taxpayer-funded account was used extensively for his motorcycle hobby.

For those of you who didn’t catch Gregg’s stories, Lenington via county email told his sister he was stunned by the re-election of President Barack Obama. He blamed a whole host of minority groups, including invoking the “n-word.”

Complex issues

Throughout the Gazette’s coverage, few questions were asked by readers more often than variations of: What happened to Lenington’s freedom of speech?

The answer to that question is simple and easy: Nothing.

The implication behind the question is a bit more complex.

Some readers believe that Lenington’s freedom to speak his mind might have somehow been compromised by the public records request — an intrusion on Lenington’s privacy and free speech. That somehow Lenington isn’t allowed to speak his mind freely because he’s a county official, under public scrutiny.

But the fact remains that unwittingly the taxpayers of Yellowstone County may have supported spreading these controversial messages through the use of county email. The computer, the email account — it’s all funded at your expense. And while one employee doesn’t always speak for an entire organization, Lenington isn’t just a rank-and-file worker. He’s one of the top elected officials in county government, and what he says should be given substantial consideration. The residents of Yellowstone County must rely on his assessments for equitable, fair tax collection. That’s why it’s troubling that Lenington has such strong feelings about some groups of people, and it makes me wonder if they can get a fair shake at the assessor’s office.

Fair comment, criticism

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.

Words have power.

That’s something we, whose stock in trade is working with words daily, realize for better and worse. One of the powerfully addictive joys of my job is seeing the positive effect our stories can have on readers — stories of amazing people, a generous community or inspirational tales. We also feel the weight of the words when it comes to reporting on deaths, accidents or what’s happening inside our courtrooms.

To dismiss Lenington’s statements as off-the-cuff electronic flotsam is to do a disservice to the truth that what we say and how we say it can have an unbelievably strong impact.

If that weren’t true, newspapers — and any media for that matter — would be a daily exercise in futility.

If nothing else, the letters, the readers’ comments and the number of page views we received on the stories prove that free speech is alive and well in Yellowstone County.

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