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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Lawsuit deters vigorous debate

Lawsuit deters vigorous debate

Among a newspaper’s vital roles is encouraging its readers to express their opinions about important matters.

And so we bristle a bit when we believe that any of our readers might, out of fear for the ramifications, crumple the letter to the editor they had been composing.

Or, more likely these days, press the delete key.

We are concerned that the million-dollar civil lawsuit former City Manager Steve Brocato filed last month could be just such a deterrent to the free exchange of opinions.

Brocato, who claims he was defamed by the four city councilors who voted to fire him, and by a city resident, cites as examples several of their letters published in the Herald and in the Record-Courier.

It is of course up to a jury to decide whether Brocato has proved defamation.

But having read the excerpts cited in the lawsuit, it seems to us that whether or not Brocato succeeds in court, by simply including those letters in his lawsuit he might well persuade people to avoid participating in reasonable public discourse, lest they see their name above the dreaded word “defendant.”

Councilor Aletha Bonebrake, for instance, wrote in a letter to the Herald: “Brocato has been unwilling to accept responsibility for his bullying tactics and displays of temper toward citizens and Councilors.”

We’re troubled by the notion that a city councilor, whom more than 2,000 city residents chose to represent them, should have to hire a lawyer to defend herself after she publicly criticizes the city’s chief administrator.

A councilor who, by the way, is responsible for evaluating the city manager’s performance, and who, along with the six other council members, has the authority to hire and to fire the manager.

The city manager, by contrast, is not directly accountable to voters.

Councilor Clair Button wrote in a letter to the Herald, referring to Brocato: “There were still critical issues that could not be discussed in public without causing a pointless dog fight.”

When a councilor feels that he can’t work on the citizens’ behalf due to conflicts with the city manager, well, that’s an issue that should be discussed and vigorously debated in public forums — one of which is this page.

Whether you agree or disagree with the councilors named in Brocato’s lawsuit, we don’t believe city residents are likely to be well-represented by elected officials who silence their tongues, or unplug their keyboards, to avoid offending a potentially litigious manager who they’re supposed to supervise.

Criticism, by its nature, is confrontational. And critical comments, whether in writing or spoken, are likely to come across as insulting to the person being criticized.

But criticism is also inextricably linked to our right to question what our government is up to. And that right should be encouraged, not stifled.

 
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