Speaking Personally - I’ll control this conversation

Last week, my personal and professional Facebook pages were hacked and deleted. Eighteen years of memories and over 7,000 followers on the newspaper’s page were gone. Despite my desperate pleas to Meta and law enforcement, it appears they are unrecoverable. 
 
A couple weeks ago, a community forum on public safety was cancelled. Regular readers of this publication will recall that so-called “First Amendment Auditors” came to Willow Springs. After their visit and subsequent videos on YouTube, Willow Springs Police and Howell County 911 phone lines were flooded with hundreds of threatening and vulgar phone calls. 
 
In the interest of public safety, we cancelled the event. The voice of this publication has been silenced too much lately. There’s no clear evidence to believe the two events are linked, but the timing is remarkable.
 
I am BOILING MAD, and here’s why.
 
In May, an officer of the Willow Springs Police Department asked a protester screaming obscenities from the highway shoulder towards a family-friendly event to leave and then cited him for disorderly conduct. That protester, who was wearing a vest that said “press,” didn’t like it. He filed complaints against the officers and burst into City Hall demanding to see the mayor. He yelled and cursed– filming all the while. Then, he posted the video on YouTube.
 
This video was picked up by satire channels mocking the local YouTuber. Those satire channels have a very large platform. Of the tens of thousands of views, only a small percentage had to be sympathetic to the original, tantrum-throwing videographer. The next day, Willow Springs was under siege by outsiders who called repeatedly – and said some of the worst things human beings can say to each other. 
As I said, I’m pretty angry too. But I am an internationally acclaimed journalist  so I will keep it civil. 
 
This community has valid concerns with public safety departments in the City of Willow Springs. The public’s trust in our leadership could be called eroded, if not precarious. My readers have grave concerns about local issues, and I know the city wants to hear about them. Personally, I would love nothing more than to moderate this discussion. 
 
But this discussion cannot take place because it is not safe to criticize the police in Willow Springs right now. That’s not because we have any reason to fear the police.
 
I am, however, very much afraid of this element of agitation that amounts to little more than domestic terrorism. Filming in public spaces and demanding your First Amendment rights is one thing – picking verbal and physical fights, pulling firearms, making threats of violence, and screaming obscenities is another. I am not generalizing. Various “First Amendment Auditors” have done all these things in Howell and Douglas Counties in the last couple years. It’s all in the public record and has been covered in this newspaper.
 
I was aware of these agitators before they created a volatile, unsafe environment in Willow Springs recently. They are a big part of the reason why I closed the in-person portion of the Sheriff’s candidate debate to anyone who hasn’t been invited. Keep reading. Getting an invitation is not difficult.
 
If the goal of a political event is to educate voters, not to earn money via YouTube clicks, a raucous disruption wrecks the event. Causing a stir is not the goal of the legitimate press. And I am fuming that this group is masquerading as the press.
 
This debate will succeed if each voter has a chance to learn about the candidates and the issues. If anyone has a probing, serious, or uncomfortable question, let it be asked AND answered. If anyone has heard a rumor, let’s talk about it openly, respectfully. There is a way to dig into tough issues, even accusations, without shouting.
 
Spitfire though I may be, I am also a human being. The debate will not be as informative and probing if I fear for my safety while I moderate. 
 
If you have a problem with the invitation-only policy, host your own public event. I won’t change mine.
 
After this week of having my voice stolen and my platform attacked, I will not be silenced by those who seek to agitate. I will not be accused of elitism when my concern has always been for the everyman. 
If you want to be at the debate, just email me and ask. You don’t have to “be someone.” You don’t have to earn it.
 
I will check you out to make sure you don’t have any convictions for violent crimes. If you appear to be a regular citizen, even if you have a couple misdemeanors, you are welcome. In fact, I want you there. I would particularly love for someone who has spent time in Howell County Jail to ask the candidates about its conditions.
 
Readers, I promise there will be a public safety forum in Willow Springs soon. I promise we will discuss all those topics you have already entrusted to me.
 
As a credentialed member of the press and (I hope) trusted advocate of the people, I will not allow the element of agitation to control the flow of information any longer.
 
Amanda Mendez is the publisher and owner of Howell County News. She is the winner of the 2023 Golden Quill, awarded by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors and the 2023 Tilghman Cloud Memorial Editorial Award from Missouri Press Association. Mendez serves as the President of the Ozarks Press Association and serves on the Missouri Bar-Press Commission. Along with her husband Ron, Mendez has owned and operated Howell County News since July 2019. She is an enthusiast of all things Ozarks and old-fashioned.
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