The newspaper is sometimes called a rough draft of history. In that sense, the Letters to the Editor column, or Fence Post in the Daily Herald, can be very much like a rough draft of a community's political and social thought.
By that I mean that, like most rough drafts, it is sometimes not very pretty. A lot of ideas get put on the table. Some of them are very good. Some of them aren't. In the process of discussion and debate, a community revises and polishes its ideas and eventually comes up with a plan of action for its growth. As a newspaper, we strive as much as possible not to judge the ideas that people send to Fence Post for their friends, neighbors and fellow citizens to consider. That judgment, we believe, should be left to the community.
But sometimes we have to exercise some restraint in order to keep the letters forum responsible and at least moderately polite. In that vein, letters to the editor have really given those of us who deal with them some ethical and sensitivity fits in the past couple of weeks.
In one particular instance, a reader this week called me out, appropriately insofar as it went, on some things I wrote on the subject of letters just a couple of months ago. In the previous column, I tried to explain that we cannot fact check all the assertions that hundreds of readers submit, so we edit questionable facts or entire letters only when we notice obvious mistakes or falsehoods. A critic wrote us this week to point out that we permitted publication of a letter with some outlandish claims about President Obama that could easily have been dispelled. And, he's right. The letter in question speculated on reasons why the president didn't appear at a patriotic fireworks ceremony at the White House on the Fourth of July, and in fact, even before we published it, it generated a fair amount of discussion among several of us editors. For it was obvious that the letter writer himself had done no research on the president's whereabouts and was happy to make some rather wild assertions based on his own political animosities.
Ultimately, we ruled in favor of publication, and my own reasoning went something like this: The writer was not asserting something specific that the president did during this patriotic event; he simply was making a not-very-educated guess. Publishing his letter allowed him to express his passions, but any reasonable reader would quickly recognize that he was more interested in making a value judgment than in expressing facts. In my mind it met our primary criteria of showing the wide range of ideas that everyday people express.
It wasn't our job to cast judgment on those ideas; we were willing to let the forum take care of that, and, as I said, at least one reader did. As campaign season heats up, I expect we'll have to begin showing more than the usual vigilance with letter writers. Sometimes, for example, political candidates, who we restrict from the column during the campaign season try to use family members or campaign workers to slip in their political talking points. Other times, individuals may try to hide behind aliases -- which we do not allow -- or put their names to words and essays of other writers or violate other of our extremely limited rules. When we catch them, we'll do what we can, eliminating them before publication if possible and at least removing them from our website if something slips by.
But in the end, when we err, it will be on the side of expression rather than restriction. Free speech, alas, is not always smart speech. But as a community works to polish the themes and thoughts that shape it, it needs to consider them all.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.