Tri-City Ledger -

By Joe Thomas
Ledger Editor 

Jay students offer up their opinions


April 12, 2018

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk to several of Elizabeth Walters' Spanish and English classes at Jay High School. Walters had given the students the task of writing editorials and opinions on topics of their choice.

I spent the morning at Jay High School talking to several classes that not only involved writing editorials but libel laws and other issues newspapers face on a daily basis. I told some old war stories about other newspapers getting sued for some of the craziest things.

I learned a long time ago that knowing the law as it's written isn't worth the paper it's written on. You have to know how the courts have interpreted the law over the years. What you don't want to be is the 'test' case that changes the law because more than likely you will be paying out money.

We have a couple of policies here at the Ledger based on lawsuits that were filed against other newspapers. One is we do not accept obituaries unless they come from a funeral home (or at least we are able to contact a funeral home to verify the death). Sounds silly doesn't it? But a newspaper was sued and lost because they ran an obit on a guy who wasn't dead. If I remember the story correctly, there were two jewelry stores in a town. The owner of one jewelry store sent in an obituary to the local newspaper stating the owner of the other jewelry store had died. The paper ran the obituary. The 'not dead' jewelry store owner sued the newspaper claiming he lost business because people thought he was dead. He settled out of court and received a check.

I also have a policy on birth announcements. It may be old school since more and more unmarried couples are having babies together, but we do our best to verify the parents of the child. This policy followed a newspaper getting sued when they ran a birth announcement where the single mother named a married man as the father of her child. Turns out the woman was mad at the guy after he fired her and that was her revenge. He sued and he won.

Our policy is if a woman runs a birth announcement naming someone other than her husband as the father, that father has to come to the office and verify he's the daddy. We don't take phone calls because we don't really know who's on the other line. People get mad about this policy, but my job is to be right and to not get sued.

Another policy I have that gets people upset is over letters to the editor. I run about 80 percent of the letters sent, but when I get a letter that I think may libel someone I don't run it. I've run letters past my attorney and listen to his advice and if he says don't run it I don't run it. Sometimes he says if the writer would take out this or that the letter would be OK. I don't make those editorial decisions without talking to the person who wrote the letter.

Most of the time when I toss a letter in the trash can, the phone call usually includes that 'it's my letter' and 'I'm responsible'. Courts have said otherwise since it's the newspaper that published the letter and the newspaper is responsible. When I tell them I won't run the letter some will say 'I'll by an ad' and run the letter. I say 'no', it's not running in my newspaper. They get mad.

My lawyer once told me It looks pretty bad to a jury if you refuse to run a letter for free but are willing to run it for money.

I took a media law class in college and the only thing I remember from that class is that if in doubt, call a lawyer before printing. Ed Williams, who was my editor at the Andalusia Star News, had a better saying, 'when it doubt, leave it out'.

You can ask anybody on my staff and they'll tell you about one of my favorite sayings. I'll ask them a question about a story or an ad and they'll say 'I think so'. My response is 'I don't want you to think, I want you to know'.

Another complaint I constantly get is about subscriptions. We have people who want to subscribe to the newspaper and they say send me a bill. I say I can't send you a newspaper until you send me a check. Sometimes they get mad. But we are audited by the post office and subscriptions must be paid in advance in order for me to keep and maintain my periodical permit.

When I write editorials or columns I'm never asking people to agree with me, I simply want people to think about the issues. I have a lot of people who disagree with some of my columns and editorials and that list includes my wife, my mother and my children.

I applaud Walters for getting her students to think outside the textbook and look at issues that affect everyday life. The four different teams of students picked for different topics: animal euthanasia, the consequences of cheating on your spouse for significant other, kneeling in protest during the National Anthem and whether prisoners should have the right to vote. I encourage you to turn to Page 6A and read the thoughts and opinions of these students. Job well done.


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