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The T-P and the F-word

The Times-Picayune mandates that if you're trying to send an email to the newspaper, you better keep it clean.

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The Times-Picayune, which banned profanity in the workplace several years ago, has extended its policy to electronic emails from readers of Louisiana's largest daily newspaper.

The T-P's new email policy has prompted a variety of responses from both inside and outside the newsroom. Yet a series of informal tests by Gambit Weekly suggests that either The Times-Picayune has permissive definitions about what constitutes "offensive or profane language" -- or the paper's information technology has not yet caught up with a policy that rings of zero tolerance. Only one of a dozen expletives we recently emailed to T-P writers resulted in the messages being blocked, and then only initially.

Responding to grumblings about the new policy from some of the T-P's nearly 300 staffers in the six-parish area, we sent a number of emails to various reporters whose email addresses were published last week in the paper. Each of those initial emails contained the expletive "f--k." (Gambit Weekly does not spell out this word in print. The email contained the full spelling of the word.) Our emails were rejected with an automatic reply, under the heading "Offensive Language Detected": "It is against The Times-Picayune's email policy to accept any email message that contains offensive or profane language."

By late last week, however, emails we sent to T-P reporters containing the F-word got through. Other emails containing numerous expletives and anatomical references also apparently passed through the T-P filter. However, the reporters told us they could not reply to Gambit Weekly by email unless they deleted the expletive from our original message.

Some reporters said they were unaware of the new email policy until informed by Gambit Weekly, and some expressed concern that, without reporters' knowledge, some sources' emails might not be getting through the filter.

Times-Picayune executives did not respond to our requests for comment by press time.

The T-P's email ban on profane speech, whatever its inconsistencies, has both its skeptics and supporters. Loyola University communications professor Larry Lorenz supports the newspaper's right to ban what it views as offensive language. "Constitutional protections of freedom of speech does not command listening," Lorenz says. "[The Times-Picayune] doesn't have to listen to profanities or offensive words. They don't have to read them. They can block them out. I support their right to do what they want to do."

Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that while the ACLU is opposed to blocking mechanisms on computers at public libraries, the group recognizes that The Times-Picayune is a private enterprise that is acting within its constitutional rights. But inevitably, Cook warns, "legal and useful material will be blocked out." In addition, the email policy raises other questions. Who decides what words are blocked, the newspaper or the Internet technology company that designs the software? Could the appearance of a profane word cause the rejection of an important message?

For reasons such as these, Cook is concerned about the policy. "A newspaper should be about the business of protecting free speech -- not blocking it," he says. "I would hope a newspaper would be careful ... because they are using the First Amendment every day to get their message out. It sends the wrong message if they inappropriately block what would be constitutionally protected speech."

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