Port: More dangerous than bad information are self-appointed censors deciding what information we can have

Some speech may be dangerous, sure. But more dangerous are those who would try to decide for the rest of us what information we can and cannot have.

coronavirus signage.jpg
Signs like these are posted on entrance doors to businesses everywhere encouraging the use of safety steps for the coronavirus epidemic. John M. Steiner / The Sun
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MINOT, N.D. -- This weekend, my fellow columnist Jim Shaw descended from the thin atmosphere of his towering self-regard to save we lowly, benighted peasants from points of view he dislikes.

"I rarely write columns in response to other columns, but this time I have no choice," he wrote . "It's a matter of life and death."

Somebody get this guy a medal.

The object of Shaw's ire are columns by Ross Nelson and Mike Hullett , both generally right-leaning commentators, which argue that our national and local response to the coronavirus pandemic has been overblown.

I don't agree with that point of view. The threat of coronavirus is genuine, and I believe the steps we've taken both locally and nationally have likely saved thousands of lives already.


Perhaps millions, if certain forecasts are believed.

The problem is, we can't prove what would have happened had we done less or even nothing at all. Would coronavirus have turned into something akin to a particularly bad flu season, as many argue?

I don't think so. Many actual experts, with actual medical degrees, don't think so.

But that doesn't mean we should stop debating the question, especially since there is a cost to our response to coronavirus, which can also be measured in lives and livelihoods lost.

I'm glad the company I work for chose to publish the columns by Nelson and Hullett. The name of our company, and the name of our flagship publication, has the word "forum" in it.

As in , "a place, meeting, or medium where ideas and views on a particular issue can be exchanged."

Note the plurals.




If people like Shaw had their way, we'd have one idea, one view, in our forums.

He argues that Nelson and Hullett's columns are "dangerous." That they might encourage the public to behave irresponsibly and spread the virus further than it would have gone otherwise.

When I was discussing Shaw's column this weekend, a friend asked me if maybe Hullett and Nelson could be accused of doing something akin to "shouting fire in a crowded theater."

That's an interesting example. It's often cited, in free speech debates, to illustrate how some speech is too dangerous to allow.

Not many who use it are aware of its origins.

It comes from a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in Schenck vs. U.S. - written by no less a progressive legal luminary than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. - upholding a ban on anti-war speech during World War I because it supposedly represented a "clear and present danger" to the country.

"The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic," Holmes wrote.


In the decades since, our courts have largely overturned this precedent (notably in Brandenburg vs. Ohio ), and that's a good thing.

Some speech may be dangerous, sure.

But more dangerous are those who would try to decide for the rest of us what information we can and cannot have.

I don't believe what Nelson and Hullett wrote was dangerous. Wrong, perhaps, but still valuable in that their points of view are shared by many. What they have to say deserves scrutiny and debate.

That's not dangerous. That's the American way.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1791, "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniencies attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it."

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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