The Press Has A Right To Do Its Job, Even In Park Forest

Gary Kopycinski

Commentary
By Gary Kopycinski

Some have been critical of comments I’ve made regarding the current elections in Park Forest. If you’ve read my comments, you should be able to surmise my conclusions as to who is most qualified. However, Park Forest is unique. The village residents, through its Non-Partisan Committe (hereafter "NPC"), like to keep elections as civil as possible, while keeping the big parties out of Park Forest, thus enabling people like myself to run for office without spending sinful amounts of money.

It’s a good system. From the NPC’s Web site, here is what non-partisan elections mean:

For candidates, this means:

  • No party endorsement is needed to run
  • Candidates can reach many voters at no cost
  • Thus it’s easier to run for Village Office

For voters, this means:

  • Candidates focus on local issues
  • Candidates are free of pressure from special interest groups
  • Opportunities exist to ask questions of all candidates

The Park Forest Committee for Non-Partisan Local Government was established in 1955. They have kept our village free of much of the vicious rancor that surrounds other local and national elections.

But not all.

Some may recall that in 2006 I lost a re-election campaign in the face of a vicious campaign. As I tell my students to this day, I lost because I’m "racist, don’t like senior citizens, and took a secret trip with Mayor Ostenburg to Washington, D.C., to turn all the co-ops in Park Forest into condominiums."

That was exactly what was on the literature that was passed out time, and time again, in the cooperatives, and beyond.

Can you imagine? I went to Washington, D.C., on a "secret trip," because I’m that powerful.

Yes, I’m laughing now as well. I really, really don’t have that power or influence. And, believe it or not, neither does Mayor Ostenburg. Washington does not stop and listen just because I show up.

And, really, the last time I was in D.C., I ran the Marine Corps Marathon. That was in 1999, long before this election. Just received an email from the Marine Corps Marathon Staff confirming what I thought my time was:

Sir, your finish time in 1999 was: 4:22:15

Thank you and have a pleasant day.

Please view our website www.marinemarathon.com for updates and information.

Thank you and have a great day.

The Marathon Staff

"Sir." I love the Marines. They were incredibly impressive that Marathon weekend, and continue to impress me. That weekend served as the beginning transformation of my own views on the military. Save that for another time.

Look, the fact is, every time I’ve run for office, I’ve taken blistering criticism, much of it from people who simply wanted me to lose.

That’s what it’s like running for office today, regardless of your party affiliation or lack thereof.

At any rate, I received a request to sit down with the NPC and discuss my role as editor and publisher of eNews Park Forest regarding the current elections, with particular attention to the mayoral election, I assume, since I am unapposed.

I’ll be happy to meet with them. Rosemary Piser, Associate Editor of eNews Park Forest, is doing all coverage of the current elections in Park Forest. That will not change. eNews Park Forest, this simple Web site I started in the summer of 2006, is a full member of the press.

The Press.

Protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

eNews Park Forest is a member of the Inland Press Association, and I am a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. At an annual meeting of the Inland Press Association, I was told by a professor from Northwestern University, "You’re legitimate."

And we are.

I can tell you my opinion. The NPC can choose to exclude me from their forums, but they cannot control the message.

Nor do I believe that is their desire.

Regarding those who feel eNews Park Forest has been too hard on any of the candidates, I encourage them to read the entir decision from the 1964 Supreme Court decision The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

Anyone considering a run for public office of any kind should read it before circulating peititions. Here’s the basic issue, directly from the decision, written by Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.

Respondent, an elected official in Montgomery, Alabama, brought suit in a state court alleging that he had been libeled by an advertisement in corporate petitioner’s newspaper, the text of which appeared over the names of the four individual petitioners and many others. The advertisement included statements, some of which were false, about police action allegedly directed against students who participated in a civil rights demonstration and against a leader of the civil rights movement; respondent claimed the statements referred to him because his duties included supervision of the police department.

L. B. Sullivan was one of the three elected Commissioners of the City of Montgomery, Alabama. He brought civil action against four black Alabama clergymen and the New York Times. A jury in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County awarded him damages of $500,000, the full amount claimed, against all the petitioners, and the Supreme Court of Alabama affirmed. Sullivan claimed that he had been libeled by statements in a full-page advertisement that was carried in the New York Times on March 29, 1960. Entitled “Heed Their Rising Voices,” the advertisment stated the following:

“As the whole world knows by now, thousands of Southern Negro students are engaged in widespread nonviolent demonstrations in positive affirmation of the right to live in human dignity as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”

It went on to charge that,

“in their efforts to uphold these guarantees, they are being met by an unprecedented wave of terror by those who would deny and negate that document which the whole world looks upon as setting the pattern for modern freedom. . . .”

Succeeding paragraphs purported to illustrate the “wave of terror” by describing certain alleged events. The text concluded with an appeal for funds for three purposes: support of the student movement, “the struggle for the right to vote,” and the legal defense of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the movement, against a perjury indictment then pending in Montgomery.

The third and sixth paragraphs of the ad were Sullivan’s libel complaint:

Third paragraph:

“In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ on the State Capitol steps, their leaders were expelled from school, and truckloads of police armed with shotguns and tear-gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus. When the entire student body protested to state authorities by refusing to reregister, their dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission.”

Sixth paragraph:

“Again and again, the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimidation and violence. They have bombed his home, almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person. They have arrested him seven times — for ‘speeding,’ ‘loitering’ and similar ‘offenses.’ And now they have charged him with ‘perjury’ — afelony under which they could imprison him for ten years. . . .”

You could argue that Sullivan was already on thin ice with this suit. His name never appears in the advertisement. The decision on Sullivan disagreed:

Although neither of these statements mentions respondent by name, he contended that the word “police” in the third paragraph referred to him as the Montgomery Commissioner who supervised the Police Department, so that he was being accused of “ringing” the campus with police. He further claimed that the paragraph would be read as imputing to the police, and hence to him, the padlocking of the dining hall in order to starve the students into submission. As to the sixth paragraph, he contended that, since arrests are ordinarily made by the police, the statement “They have arrested [Dr. King] seven times” would be read as referring to him; he further contended that the “They” who did the arresting would be equated with the “They” who committed the other described acts and with the “Southern violators.” Thus, he argued, the paragraph would be read as accusing the Montgomery police, and hence him, of answering Dr. King’s protests with “intimidation and violence,” bombing his home, assaulting his person, and charging him with perjury. Respondent and six other Montgomery residents testified that they read some or all of the statements as referring to him in his capacity as Commissioner.

The Supreme Court rejected Sullivan’s arguments, holding “A State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves ‘actual malice’ — that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false. “

The key here is “actual malice.” Was there actual malice involved? SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) said no, and this decision has been the standard-bearer for all cases that followed.

In short, to paraphrase a colleague of mine, you would have to falsely accuse a public official of something absolutely horrible, like infanticide, say that you know it is true, that you have seen proof — all the while knowing that what you are saying is a damn lie. Like it or not, public officials are considered “public property,” and the public can say almost anything at all about them, true or false, and face no consequence for doing so.

From SCOTUS again:

In Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U. S. 250, the Court sustained an Illinois criminal libel statute as applied to a publication held to be both defamatory of a racial group and “liable to cause violence and disorder.” But the Court was careful to note that it “retains and exercises authority to nullify action which encroaches on freedom of utterance under the guise of punishing libel”; for “public men are, as it were, public property,” and “discussion cannot be denied, and the right, as well as the duty, of criticism must not be stifled.”

In essence, you’re main limitation on what you can and cannot say about a public official is your conscience. The law will let you say a lot.

Did you ever wonder why some politicians running for office say the most awful things about their opponents and get away with it? Despicable and lowly as this behavior is, it’s because they can. If you don’t like their behavior — and you shouldn’t — then campaign against them.

Candidates may not like what New York Times Co. v. Sullivan has to say.

Again, from SCOTUS:

We reverse the judgment. We hold that the rule of law applied by the Alabama courts is constitutionally deficient for failure to provide the safeguards for freedom of speech and of the press that are required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct.

Is it right to trash a candidate without mercy? No. It’s not right to do that to anyone. But a candidate for public office, or anyone in public office, is "public property."

Look, people who run for office need to read this decision.

Park Forest has its own member of the press: eNews Park Forest, an organization dedicated to telling Park Foresters (and beyond) what is going on.

The press must report the facts. Furthermore, members of the press are entitled to their opinions. Readers are free to accept or reject those facts or opinions.

However…

Those rights are guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America.

Say no more.