The greatest freedom the free press may have is the option to not print something.
We stumbled on that lesson a little more than a week ago.
Most readers of The Billings Gazette have been following Montana state Sen. Jason Priest's court case in the media. The Red Lodge Republican's assault charges and the details of the allegations are serious.
As court papers were filed by Carbon County last week, the details became part of the public record. And that's a good thing. Part of democracy involves courts being transparent and prosecutors justifying charges against anyone — citizen or legislator.
As is our practice, we routinely post court documents online. We do this for several reasons. We want people to read the original sources for themselves. We want folks to be able to trust our reporting as well as arrive at their own conclusions. We also believe court documents should be as accessible as possible because they are, after all, public documents.
A few astute readers noticed that we had said in print that the court documents in the Priest case would be online. When readers hopped on billingsgazette.com, they found the story, but no documents.
This wasn't some shameless ploy to get people to log onto our website. Instead, it was a decision — after reading through the documents — that they simply should not be there.
It probably sounds odd for a newspaper editor who should be the acolyte of open information and free speech to admit we pulled the documents from our site — especially since there was nothing clandestine in acquiring them.
The truth is that if you want to get the court documents, they're located in Carbon County and you're more than welcome (and entitled) to read them or make copies.
But you won't find them on our website.
Quite frankly, I've read some pretty tough court documents in my career as a journalist and editor, but the Priest documents, if true, paint a picture that is deeply troubling.
First, the case involves children. And to the extent that we can, we try to shield them, although in many instances that's impossible or difficult.
More importantly, I believe the court documents could paint Priest in a harsh light. And, just as much as I am a fervent supporter of the First Amendment, I am also a big believer in the due process that says it's up to the courts to decide Priest's innocence or guilt.
It's not a common practice for The Gazette to yank court documents from its site. Then again, the language and the descriptions, aren't something we encounter often.
As I write this, I can already hear the criticisms. There will be a few who claim this is some kind of political ploy to help shield the Republicans; or that we're just employing a double standard — we are not willing to delete every court document on our site.
That's the really tricky thing about news: No two stories are the same. Many are similar. Thankfully, few state legislators are accused of domestic violence.
It is a good thing that no one — government or otherwise — gets to tell any newspaper what to print. Unlike some other countries, we have no censors and no "government sponsored" newspapers or media.
That is indeed freeing and invigorating. But, it's also vexing and difficult. It means that within certain broad parameters, there aren't any rules about what can be printed and what must be withheld. That means decisions are a matter of taste, decorum, practice and most of all, judgment.
In this instance, we made a judgment call — a decision that these documents were too damning and too extreme to print.
We followed some of the oldest and best journalism advice out there: Just because you can print something doesn't mean you should.