On Oct. 31, I printed an editorial drawing new parameters for the Opinion page. We had endured a hotly debated election season and a virtual free-for-all in the Letters to the Editor section. It had gotten pretty nasty. Name-calling and accusations were plentiful.
So, I set a new rule for opinion writers that no letters containing personal attacks or name-calling would be allowed. Note that I did not say opinions other than those like mine are not allowed. I also did not ban questioning of government agencies, nor civil debate.
Looking back, on Nov. 7 I printed a letter regarding Henry Wickenburg’s heritage, written by a gentleman who had done some research at the local museum and was offering his findings to the ongoing debate about the nationalities of Wickenburg’s early residents. On Nov. 14, I printed a letter from a woman who was critical of the county and concerned that not everyone’s vote was counted due to a delay with the computers at our polling location. On Dec. 5, I printed a letter, which was a little hard to decipher, questioning Congress and a political party. Nearby was a guest editorial by the director of our senior center addressing a negative comment he had heard, and encouraging us to look at the senior center in a positive light.
In addition to those, we also printed a handful of thank you letters and a couple of pieces informing residents of how they can help out hungry or otherwise needy families during Christmas.
Writers with thank you’s are always welcome; those with a bit of news or helpful information are always welcome; those who would like to enter a running debate in civil tone are welcome too. As I look back over the previous five weeks, I see we are accomplishing our mission. I applaud the community for that.
I will tell you it has not come without criticism and testing of my mettle. Just this week I received two letters which contained personal criticism. One called out a previous letter writer by name and publicly addressed that person in a condescending tone. Another letter criticized a town employee repeatedly by name and took issue with a proposed development in town.
When I refused to print the latter because it contained a personal attack, I got personally attacked via email. To quote, “So what you are saying is to mention a public officials name is an attack? I believe what you have done yourself towards myself and others has been more of an attack on personal character than any letter I have ever written. This is a violation of my First amendment rights. It has long been the practice of this paper, under its guidelines that any public official was fare game. You however have attacked the public writer.
This letter and your reply will be read by more than you can imagine.
I believe you just opened a box that will bring you under public scrutiny.”
The gentleman who wrote those words then circulated my refusal to print his letter to others via e-mail. In turn, I received more ugly e-mail, some telling me that I’m putting the newspaper out of business because I won’t print critical letters.
First, as demonstrated above, I am willing to print letters containing criticism. I have not banned topics. It’s the delivery, folks. The simple fact is that letter writers must deliver their message in a civil tone, without personal attacks and without name-calling. It isn’t allowed on the school yard and it’s not allowed in the newspaper.
If you are against a certain proposed development, you are more than welcome to write a letter voicing your concerns, but it is unacceptable to ridicule the town employee whose job it is to process the application for the development, and who actually lacks the final authority to decide whether the project moves forward.
Second, it is important to understand the First Amendment. If a letter writer wants to go stand on the street corner and tell everyone passing by what he believes, he is protected by the First Amendment. He can also go to town council and, within certain guidelines, express his opinion there.
Quite differently, a newspaper is not public property or a government entity and is not required to print anything submitted by the public. Newspapers are private businesses with the right to refuse.
In a restaurant it’s – No Shirt No Shoes No Service. Everyone has the right to come on in and eat, but they have to abide by the guidelines for the good of all who are experiencing the same restaurant.
Same here. Clean it up and you’ll receive the same service as the others. Continue to be nasty natured and you can take your bull horn down to the stop light and have your say there.