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Chief’s newspaper decree leads to free speech debate

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

The removal of an anonymous opinion column in the Cherokee One Feather has sparked a heated freedom of speech debate among Cherokee leaders.

On Oct. 10 the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council made a decision to uphold Principal Chief Michell Hicks executive order calling for the removal of the “Rants and Raves” section from the tribal-owned newspaper. The decision came after the council listened to supporters and opponents debate the chief’s order.

Some said the section should be banned because of its slanderous nature, while others argued that its removal is a limit on freedom of speech. Others speculated the chief wanted it removed because the section often contained criticism of him and his administration.

On Oct. 1, the day of his inauguration, Chief Hicks issued an executive order banning the publication of the newspaper’s popular “Rants and Raves” section, a one- or two-line anonymous opinion column that runs each week in the newspaper. The executive order came soon after the Cherokee Supreme Court decided in Hicks’ favor in an election challenge brought by his opponent in the chief’s race. The court declared Hicks the winner of the election by a 14-vote margin.

Hick’s decision to take the column out of the paper was sparked when it started containing content that was “inappropriate for young readers,” he said.

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The chief referenced a rant that appeared in the Oct. 2 newspaper that said a high school football player needed to gain weight.

“Initially it (the Rants and Raves section) was fine — it was comical — then it became hurtful,” Hicks told the tribal council.

Rob Saunooke, a tribal member and a private attorney, asked council to consider a resolution against the chief’s order.

“An anonymous comment is the heart of the free press,” Saunooke told tribal council members during their Oct. 10 meeting. “I don’t think there is a basis for this. The tribal law is very clear. Allow the people to have a free voice.”

In 2006, the tribal council adopted the Free Press Act, which states the tribal newspaper “shall be independent from any undue influence and free of any particular political interest.” Even though the tribe owns the newspaper, the act gives the One Feather the right to report honestly and objectively.

Saunooke said the chief’s order is a violation of the act, but others argued that Hicks is merely following the tribe’s charter. The newspaper is the official paper of the tribe and is a tribal operation, said Hannah Smith, acting attorney general.

“It’s very clear the executive order is appropriate here,” Smith said.

During the meeting, Hicks stated his reasoning for removing the section.

“The initiative of the executive order was not to hinder anyone from speaking as long as you put your name to it,” Hicks told council while holding the Cherokee Charter in his hand. “Under our code, it’s the chief’s responsibilities to represent and defend the rights and interests of our people.”

One of Saunooke’s arguments is that the executive order restricts a person’s freedom of speech. “You cannot stop someone from saying what they want just because you don’t like it.”

Hicks argued that his order was not an infringement on the free speech rights of tribal members.

“At no point do you see that I am hindering the editor and his staff from reporting,” he said.

Nancy Long, a tribal member and supporter of the opinion section, said that banning the “Rants and Raves” section will not stop members from expressing their opinions.

“If we can’t do it in the One Feather, we will do it some other way,” she said.

Shawn Crowe, who works at Youth Radio in Cherokee, said he disliked the anonymous section.

“The editorial page is used to express the people’s freedom of speech, but people put their names to it. The ‘Rants and Raves’ section is wrong because it’s anonymous,” he said. “If there is no signature to these ‘Rants and Raves,’ than it’s not valid. If you are going to put something in the paper, put your name to it.”


Creating an editorial board

The Free Press Act requires the council to form an editorial board.

“I don’t know why we never did form an editorial board,” tribal councilwoman Tomye Saunooke said.

At the Oct. 10 meeting, all parties agreed that the One Feather needs to establish an editorial board.

“I do agree we do need an editorial board to oversee the content of the paper,” Hicks said.

One Feather Editor Joe Martin agreed.

“I am calling to push forward for an editorial board, especially since it calls for a journalist on the board,” he said.

Once formed, the three-member board should consist of a tribal member that accepts the ethics of journalism defined by the Society of Professional Journalists and endorsed by the Native American Journalists Association, according to the act.

The act also states one member shall be appointed by the chief and two members by tribal council. One member must have a journalism degree.

Since the One Feather is without an editorial board, the newspaper’s editor serves in absence of the board and determines the newspaper’s content.


The ethics of anonymity

Using anonymous sources in journalism has been a topic of discussion for many years. Some feel that it’s poor journalism, while others say anonymity allows sources protection from retribution.

Rem Rieder, editor and senior vice president of the American Journalism Review at the University of Maryland, does not like giving anonymity to those who put their opinions in print.

“I never through it was a good idea to include anonymous comments,” he said.

“There is a strong tradition in journalism against those types of letters to the editors. Most news wire organizations require you to place a name to a letter. Letters to the editor give you a free range to rant if you put your name to it. I think it’s a bad idea to have anonymous letters,” said Rieder.


Who’s in charge?

“To me it’s a clear violation of the (Free) Press Act,” said Brian Pollard, editor of Cherokee Phoenix in Oklahoma, of Hicks’ order.

“The biggest difference is in the spirit of it being honored,” Pollard said. “Here, our chief and council believe in a free press. This is not the case with the Eastern Band. They have a chief that clearly does not respect the press act.”

The Phoenix adopted its Free Press Act several years ago when a similar situation occurred between their tribe’s chief and the newspaper. The tribe then adopted the act and an editorial board was formed.

Pollard said the board has helped the success of his newspaper.

“It works great,” he said. The three-member board comprised of journalists assist Pollard on a daily basis. “They are a tremendous asset to the newspaper because they bring a wealth of experience to the table.”

The Phoenix board is elected slightly differently than the proposed One Feather’s editorial board. The Phoenix’s board has one member selected by the chief, one member selected by the tribal council, and a third member chosen by the first two members.

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