Hold your tongues

Published 10:09 pm Tuesday, December 13, 2016

One of the questions we’re asked prior to every election is whether the Suffolk News-Herald will be making political endorsements for that election.

We have made such endorsements in the past — indeed, many newspapers around the nation consider it a sacred duty of those who work with the editorial page to do so.

Our policy in recent years, however, has been to eschew such endorsements. We believe that editorial-page endorsements do little to serve informed voters, and we suspect there are few uninformed voters who turn to this page for advice on voting. In fact, the people who benefit most from editorial-page political endorsements are the endorsed candidates, who often use their newspaper approvals as fodder in their campaigns.

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And finally, what happens when the unendorsed candidate wins the election? Can he or she ever be confident of fair treatment on that editorial page while in office? We’d like to think that most recognize a journalist’s ability maintain standards of professionalism, no matter who wins an election, but the truth is that memories are long, especially for those who feel they have been slighted.

Better, we determined some years back, to stay out of the fray altogether and trust that the people of Suffolk can make their own informed decisions.

The Suffolk School Board is wrestling with the same issue in the wake of a City Council election in which School Board Chairman Michael Debranski wrote a letter that appeared on this page supporting City Councilman Roger Fawcett, who ran successfully for reelection in the Sleepy Hole Borough.

Debranski’s letter included his position as chairman of the School Board, and its contents could easily have been interpreted as being the sense of the School Board as a whole, rather than simply Debranski’s personal opinion. That ruffled the feathers of some other members of the board, which is now considering a policy that would prevent the board from endorsing political candidates, except in cases in which a majority of the board voted to do so in an open meeting. The policy would expressly allow board members’ endorsements as private citizens.

It seems likely that any such policy would run afoul of free-speech considerations. School Board members, like any American citizen, have a right to publicly support anybody they wish, and that right should extend to writing letters to the editor.

But just because one can do something doesn’t mean that one should do it. For all the reasons that this newspaper has moved away from publicly endorsing candidates, School Board members should consider doing the same — without needing a policy to make it happen.

Considering, for example, how much they depend on the City Council for support, it seems obvious that School Board members would be wary of making political enemies of candidates who could eventually control the school system’s purse strings.

Suffolk’s school board should shy away from enacting a policy that could be seen as infringing on its members’ free speech. But its members should recognize that exercising that right can have some harsh consequences, too. And that realization should cause them to hold their tongues come the next election cycle.