CLIFF’S EDGE: Reasons to Speak Up About Speaking Out


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The Burien City Council heard from The Seattle Times this week with what I would assume was unsolicited advice.

Some might be surprised at The Times weighing in on the ongoing local dispute over a council policy prohibiting online posts by council members (Councilmember Lauren Berkowitz, in particular) during meetings.

The Times’ opinion:

“The Burien City Council should do away with this portion of its social-media policy…”

Now why, you might ask, would this topic be of concern to Times readers?

I can offer two reasons, one frivolous, the other most serious.

First, having spent a couple of years on the staff of The Times editorial writers, I know there are days when what some might consider a lesser topic for pontification is the best that can be found in the face of that never-yielding demand to fill space on the editorial page.

Suddenly, a smoldering issue in Burien takes on greater significance..

On the serious side there is a question of whether Berkowitz’s email correspondence during council sessions violates the state’s open-meeting laws because she may be discussing council business with people outside the council walls.

There is disagreement within the council as to the legality of such a practice, and right there is enough justification for The Times, which has long campaigned for openness in government at all levels, to speak up from the sidelines of this dispute.

Indeed, free-speech issues such as this are drawing increased attention on many fronts as social media have greater impact in both public and private communication.

What happens to basic principles of vigorous and free speech as a factor in society’s governance when different means of communicating with still evolving principles become involved in the vital interaction between governments and their citizens?

Another such issue about which I have similar concern is that of anonymity in the exchange of information and opinion on topics of importance to all of us.

Whether among official voices or the voices of those they’re serving, there are persistent questions as to the relative validity of words from those who mask their identities and affiliations behind anonymity or false identification.

That issue, again, has relevance for those of us in Burien as our B-Town Blog rightly encourages its readers to involve themselves in the day-to-day issues of our time—crime, homelessness, education, governance — but closes the door to their responses to them.

Since Oct. 12, as you know, the “comments” capability of this blog has been closed with rare exceptions. This stance has not been taken frivolously, as evidenced by the blog’s poll of its readers regarding that closure.

Readers have been asked if they want the opportunity to comment restored, but only on the condition that writers’ real names are published? Or should they be returned with pseudonyms or anonymity allowed?

Some three-quarters of those responding say they want the comments back, 43 percent wanting actual, true names on them, 32 percent accepting pseudonyms.

Only 22 percent have said they don’t want the comments back, and, thankfully, only 3 percent don’t care. This is too important an issue, to my way of thinking, for anyone to not care.

Transparency in government along with citizen participation, both guaranteed in part through free and open speech, are more important now than they have ever been as we attempt to deal with complex issues in a fragmented society.

As suggested by The Times and The B-Town Blog, we in Burien are right in the thick of the struggle.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good place to be.

Cliff Rowe is a retired journalist and journalism professor. (He practiced both in a time before journalists and what they produced were considered “enemies of the people.”) He and his family have lived in the Shorewood area of White Center (then Burien) since 1969 when they returned to the Northwest after seven years in the Chicago area. There, following graduate school, he wrote and edited with the Chicago Sun-Times and with Paddock Publications in the Chicago suburbs. On moving here, he was with The Seattle Times for 11 years before turning to teaching journalism at Pacific Lutheran University for 35 years, retiring in 2015.

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