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Opinion: Issues fire tempers: But without both sides of argument, decisions difficult

Back in college, probably during Law of the Press or one of the other journalism courses in which we discussed free speech and the First Amendment, I ran across a great phrase that I often quoted as a young reporter.

I can't recall where I read it, but it talked about how democracy worked best when there existed a "free exchange of ideas in the marketplace of truth." The idea was that if people in the United States were given all possible information, they'd eventually arrive at the best decisions. Limiting information would hamper that process.

Perhaps that was an overly simple phrase for a naïve young journalism student, but I thought it made sense, and I had a lot of confidence that citizens in this country were capable of reading or hearing all sorts of conflicting information, sorting things through and arriving at what was true or factual. I still believe people generally are capable of that. I'm not as certain as I once was that the process will work.

Often, it seems to be, there's less acceptance of the idea that conflicting information should be passed around for people to review and assess. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that in a busy, informationall-the-time world, fewer people have the time to review and access the conflicting information as they should if they are to reach their best conclusions.

I watch clips and read stories these days about the unrest at town-hall meetings in some parts of the country, and I don't know quite what to make of it. I'd like to be there, to see for myself the entire hall, the whole crowd and the meeting start to finish. That way I'd have more information to use to make my own judgment on whether people are trying to be heard or are shouting down other people, whether the First Amendment is being exercised or subverted.

I don't know that this sort of angry shouting at public gatherings is anything new. I suppose it carries more sinister overtones for many people because of the examples of violence we read and hear about in the news. If some angry person will walk into an exercise gym and start shooting, isn't it possible some other angry person would do the same at a town meeting?

During four decades as a news reporter, I covered a whole bunch of events and gatherings at which people shouted at each other in anger. As a reporter, I seldom feared that violence would erupt at a meeting, but I did witness some pretty angry citizens.

I covered an incredibly emotional evening meeting of a legislative committee working on an income-tax bill, though. Tempers flared all evening at the meeting, held in the House chamber of the state Capitol building. The floor of the chamber was packed, the gallery was filled to overflowing, and people were shoulderto-shoulder in the hallways, hot and sweaty and mad. There was a lot of yelling, and I don't know how much exchange of ideas happened in that marketplace of truth. No one was hurt, though.

Some of the meetings over the Oahe Irrigation Project were little more than shouting matches, with occasional shoving and jostling. Somewhere in that emotioncharged process that spanned most of the 1970s, public opinion swung from highly supportive of the project to opposed or at least uncertain.

I guess I can't expect people not to get angry when an issue really hits home. I think we all should be able to expect the anger to be channeled into public discussion aimed at that free exchange of ideas I so strongly favor. It's the way the country makes its best decisions.

Terry Woster's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays in The Daily Republic.