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The ethics of online comments, and letters to the editor

Is a publication responsible for a writer's opinions?


In the digital age, where information flows rapidly and opinions find their way to public forums every day, the lines between freedom of expression, journalistic standards, and even potential legal consequences have become increasingly blurred.

While social media, online comments, and letters to the editor serve as a vital platform for individuals to voice their opinions, they also raise concerns about the potential for misinformation and character assassination.

Exactly what should publications allow when the public wants to weigh in?

It's a subject The Apopka Voice wrestled with a couple of months ago and ultimately paused comments on its news site.

Now, in the August 25th edition, The Apopka Chief published a letter to the Editor from David Rankin that has a lot of people asking questions about how far a writer can go in his criticism of the subjects.

Rankin, a senior vice president at One Florida Bank in Apopka, wrote: 

"Near the conclusion of the June 21st meeting of the Apopka City Council, Kyle Becker announced that he would not be seeking re-election as the commissioner of Seat 3. He attributed the timing of his announcement as an attempt to ensure that his actions for the remainder of his term would not be misconstrued as politically motivated.

Fast forward to the very next council meeting held on July 5th, and Mr. Becker almost gleefully introduced a resolution to censure Mayor Bryan Nelson as it pertained to the employment status of former Apopka City Attorney Michael Rodriguez. Contrary to his assertion on July 21st, a resolution to censure is about as political as it gets and is not something that one does on the spur of the moment. Clearly, he has put a lot of thought into it. So, to one degree or another, it appears that Mr. Becker lied when he stated that his actions would not be politically motivated. Granted, the manner in which Mr. Rodriguez's employment and departure could have been better communicated by everyone involved and should have been discussed at the council level so that a mutual understanding and agreement could be reached by the council members. Unfortunately, Mr. Becker chose to go the censure route, which has no teeth and is simply a means to grandstand and attack and embarrass a political adversary as a precursor to an election. Why would he do this? I can't say for sure, but I suspect it's because he still hasn't gotten over the fact that he lost the 2022 mayoral election.

According to Wikipedia, a censure of an elected official is a public and formal statement of disapproval with no punitive fines or impacts attached. The commission has no recourse to reprimand or punish a mayor. Therefore, censure is one of the few responses available to make a formal statement of disapproval.

The censure resolution passed 3-1 and focused on Nelson's statements about the employment status of former City Attorney Michael Rodriguez.

Commissioners Kyle Becker, Nick Nesta, and Diane Velazquez voted in favor, while Nelson voted against. Commissioner Alexander Smith was absent from the meeting and did not vote.

Rankin continues:

"August 2nd was truly a sad day for Apopka as Mr. Becker put himself and his ego ahead of city business and pushed forward with his censure resolution. Of course, it passed on a 3-1 majority, with the usual council members voting in the affirmative. When Mayor Nelson offered his rebuttal, Mr. Becker, Mr. Nesta, and Mrs. Velazquez repeatedly interrupted and talked over the mayor. It was obvious that they were uncomfortable being on the receiving end of criticism as they had become accustomed to Mayor Nelson and other city employees being their personal political punching bag.

If all that wasn't bad enough, at the conclusion of the meeting, Mayor Nelson agreed to a brief interview by a WESH Channel 2 reporter. Mr. Becker apparently caught up in his own political euphoria, saw fit to tell the reporter, "Be careful that Mayor will lie to you." What drives an adult to be so petty and behave so childishly? What drives a person to put their political fortunes ahead of their community? Does he not see his actions are a costly embarrassment to the city that he supposedly represents? Does he even care? These are all legitimate questions.

Becker responded to this section of Rankin's letter, denying the allegation that he made that statement to anyone.

"He (Rankin) has full right to share his opinions of my performance in my role," Becker said. "However, where I find it irresponsible is the use of a quote which is a complete fabrication.  Equally irresponsible is that the editor of The Apopka Chief would run an unsubstantiated quote and afford me no respect as an elected representative in this city by vetting the quote.  To set the record straight, at the conclusion of the meeting he references, a Channel 13 reporter, not Channel 2, by the name of Ms. Maria Serrano was interviewing the Mayor.  I overheard some of that conversation on my way out of Council chambers where there were comments being made by the Mayor that I disagreed with.  I tapped Ms. Serrano on the arm and stated “Please make sure you fact-check what he is saying”.  That’s it, so if he (Rankin) would fabricate the quote he used, kind of makes you question the remainder of his statements."

The Apopka Voice contacted Serrano, a reporter for Spectrum News 13, who confirmed she interviewed Nelson and did not hear Becker call Nelson a liar.

"I can only confirm we always fact-check our stories," she said. "On the second question, I did not hear anything."

Rankin's letter continues:

The biggest problem with the Apopka City Council is that three of the commissioners don't understand that their role is legislative and policy-driven, not administrative. However, they see fit to insert themselves into the day-to-day operation of the City to the point that they're intrusive and lend themselves to what could evolve into a hostile work environment because of their foul language and aggressive tone toward city employees. On the other hand, the role of a strong mayor is both legislative and administrative. Unfortunately, it has become exponentially harder for Mayor Nelson to do the job he was elected to do because certain members of the commission seem preoccupied with telling him how to do his job while at the same time attacking him politically at every turn. Meanwhile, Apopka suffers.

Mr. Becker needs to stop acting like a petulant child, re-align his priorities, show some genuine leadership, and do the job that he was elected to do. If he's unable or unwilling, then possibly it would be in the best interest of Apopka if he were to step down."

David Rankin

Apopka City Commissioner Nick Nesta also responded to Rankin's letter. He, too, was frustrated by its tone, describing the letter as a threat.

“This Apopka Chief Op-Ed submitted by David Rankin is just another series of attacks and threats hurled against the Elected Officials in the City of Apopka for simply serving the people," Nesta said. "After the City of Apopka, August 16th, 2023, 7:00 pm City Council meeting where I advocated for a forensic audit of the City of Apopka finances, I was threatened yet again. 
I did provide Apopka Police Chief Michael McKinley with official notification of the latest threat I received... this time via text message and signed with the closing signature/name "David Rankin" from a phone number I was unfamiliar with. I have added my most recent bold, brazen, and blatant threat, harassment, bullying, and intimidation tactic to my complaint packet under review by other entities. I remain in fear for my life, my safety, and that of my family as I carry out my duties as Apopka City Commissioner on behalf of the people, and I am determined to continue to serve. Now we have this Friday, August 25th, 2023, Apopka Chief Op-Ed threat. It is unfortunate that these threats, name-calling, and bullying continue, and they must stop.”

Social media, online comments, and letters to the editor are an important component of journalistic platforms, enabling readers to engage in public discourse and share their perspectives on various matters. However, this format also presents unique challenges when it comes to journalistic integrity.

At The Apopka Voice, we have given our readers these guidelines when posting comments:

  • Will my comments contribute to an important issue?
  • Are there personal attacks against anyone in my remarks?
  • Is everything I say truthful and able to be proven?

Implementing editorial guidelines, fact-checking, and avoiding the use of unverified or defamatory language can help reduce the likelihood of defamatory content making its way online or into print. As society continues to grapple with the complexities of free speech in the digital age, finding the balance between the right to express opinions and the duty to avoid causing harm remains an ongoing challenge. It is incumbent upon both writers and publications to tread carefully in this delicate landscape, where words have the power to both enlighten and damage.

Online Comments, Letters to the Editor, Censure, Apopka City Council