Now, more than ever, free speech is vital

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Inside this week’s paper, readers will find a flyer from Vermont Right to Life, a pro-life advocacy group that aims to inform public opinion on abortion and physician-assisted death.

The last time our papers ran this flyer – a paid advertisement inserted into the newspaper – we got a lot of grief for it. Pro-choice advocates called and emailed, saying they’d never read or advertise in our papers again. Some asked to stop delivery of the paper.

We recognize while some readers may appreciate this flyer, others may have a similar reaction as before. And we understand.

This conundrum is not a new one, but it provides an opportunity to discuss a newspaper’s main role: protecting the freedom of speech and providing a venue for thoughtful discussion.

Now more than ever, First Amendment rights need protection. President-elect Donald Trump has suggested jailing people for burning the American flag, an act the Supreme Court has ruled is protected speech. He’s made a hobby of trying to silence journalists with threats of lawsuits or just blatantly interrupting their questions at a news conference.

And let’s not forget, at his own rally in Burlington last January, Trump’s campaign denied entry to the Flynn Theater to any undecided voter or to those supporting other candidates.

This example, now coming from the nation’s highest office, isn’t one our newspapers want to emulate. It isn’t our practice to quiet viewpoints that may or may not conflict with our own.

In 2014, a group of three Minnesota newspapers dealt with this same question. An anti-LGBT organization there paid for full-page, color ads critical of a proposed policy to allow transgender students to play on athletic teams corresponding to their gender identity.

The ads sparked outcry, according to misinformation watchdog Media Matters. Activists said the ad was “misleading, hurtful and based in ignorance.”

The same could easily be said about this insert in your local paper. And just as the Minnesota newspapers did in the above case, we want to remind our readers that The Colchester Sun’s reporters and editors don’t necessarily agree with or endorse opinions expressed in paid advertising. They’re two separate departments for a reason.

Especially given the national climate, we want to remind readers of our responsibility as a free press to uphold the First Amendment, one that all Americans hold dear.

Your local paper has always hosted conflicting viewpoints, and we welcome them. To us, that’s preserving our democracy.

If you’re so moved, please exercise this right by submitting letters to the editor on this or any other topic. Our guidelines are below.

Courtney A. Lamdin is executive editor of The Colchester Sun, Essex Reporter and Milton Independent.