“WRDS MTR: We need to listen to each other.”
We spoke with Portland Press Herald opinion columnist Bill Nemitz for the third installment of our interview series, One on 1.
Bill has worked in journalism for four decades and told us about his experiences with the First Amendment – including thoughts on the “c-word” (censorship), Governor Paul LePage, and vulgar vanity plates.
BILL NEMITZ: Yeah, along with the right to free speech comes the responsibility to shut up every once in a while.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Hi, I’m Christian Cotz, CEO of the First Amendment Museum in Augusta, Maine.
Today I’m joined by Bill Nemitz. Bill’s been involved in Maine journalism for more than four decades, starting as a reporter for the Morning Sentinel in Waterville in 1970s. And since 1995 he’s been writing an opinion column for the Portland Press Herald.
Interestingly enough, when Bill started working at those papers they were still owned by the Guy Gannett Communications Company, and the First Amendment Museum of course is located in Guy Gannet’s old house.
Bill thanks for being with us today.
BILL NEMITZ: It’s a pleasure, Christian. Good to see you.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Why do you think the First Amendment is important? What is its purpose or goal?
BILL NEMITZ: First and foremost, its purpose and goal is to do exactly what I do and that is to write an opinion column for a daily newspaper.
I’ve traveled various parts of the world and I know there are places in this world where if somebody did what I do on a regular basis I’d probably be in prison by now. It provides me that basic right to do what I do without fear of government interference, recrimination, other than from my readers, I suppose.
It really underpins everything I do and more broadly, everything we do as a newspaper, and even more broadly than that, everything we do as a society.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: So as a newspaperman, as somebody who thinks that everybody else wants to hear your opinion how does the First Amendment intersect with your professional life?
BILL NEMITZ: My columns during the administration of Governor Paul LePage, I wrote very often and frequently, and pointedly, I should say, about my disagreements with the governor.
I think about that often because that was a situation in which you are being directly critical of not only a government but of the chief executive of that government. And as I said earlier if there was any kind of ability on the government’s part to restrict that, to interfere with that, or maybe even to punish for that, it would have happened. Because I know that he wasn’t too happy with what I was doing as much as I wasn’t happy with what he was doing.
And so I think about that as an example where I never worried about that and why didn’t I worry about that? Because there’s a First Amendment.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Do people in America understand or recognize their First Amendment rights?
BILL NEMITZ: I think they recognize them, I’m not sure they always understand them.
The reason I say that is because with the newspaper if somebody writes a letter to the editor, we get a lot of them we can’t run all of them. Frequently when somebody has a letter that they think the world needs to hear and we decide not to run it, they charge us with censorship. And censorship, which really goes to the heart of the First Amendment is an act of government. “Government shall make no law abridging freedom of the press.”
And a private enterprise like a newspaper can’t do censorship. I mean we exercise editorial control, we make those decisions, but the c-word is something that really is reserved for government.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Outside of journalism, outside of your column and the reporting that you do, how do you feel like you personally utilize or exercise those First Amendment freedoms?
BILL NEMITZ: A good example: my wife and I got a little old Volkswagen. We did get one of those antique auto plates and we’re saying, “Oh well, let’s do something special here, what do we want to say on one of these vanity type plates?” And so we decided to put on it the letters W-R-D-S space M-T-R. And if you read it quickly it says ‘Words Matter.’ People will roll down their windows and smile and say, “I love the license plate.”
I always take that as a little affirmation of the fact that we are free if we want to put a sign out in front of your house, you’re free to do that. If you want to put some kind of message on your license plate, you’re free to do that.
And here in Maine, that’s actually gone to the extreme where the Secretary of State who oversees license plates, vanity plates, in Maine basically threw up his hands and said, “Okay, anything goes.” You know if you want to put an obscenity on your license plate and drive around with that, you’re free to do it. You’re also free to suffer the repercussions from people who are offended by that, and they will express their First Amendment rights in telling you.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: If you had one wish for the people of the United States that had to do with their First Amendment rights, what would that wish be?
BILL NEMITZ: I wish people would understand that speech is not a one-way act.
One thing we’ve lost sight of in these difficult times is the fact that speech implies dialogue and you can’t have dialogue if everybody’s speaking at the same time. A lot of times people can’t hear each other because they never stop talking at each other.
So what I would advocate for is we need to listen once in a while.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Well, listen, thanks so much for talking to us today.
BILL NEMITZ: It’s a pleasure.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Thanks to everybody who’s out there listening. Stay tuned for more One on 1. We’ll be back.