Editorial: What's the right letters policy?
From time to time, the letters page of this paper gets a little ugly. Sometimes it’s an exchange that becomes heated; sometimes it’s a gadfly who takes aim at local governance and institutions; sometimes it’s a general mood of discontent and blame.
Lately it’s been all of the above, so we at the paper are taking a look at our policy to see if we’re missing something. To that end, we’ve been running a poll and are inviting comment, online, emailed or posted, to gather more input. We also want to take a minute of your time to explain our current policy, so that you, our valued readers, know where we’re coming from when we ask if you’d like to see change.
There seems to be a misperception that we publish every letter we get. We don’t — not by a long chalk. The paper can often be a touchstone for people who are struggling with various issues, and we get letters about all sorts of things, from personal narratives about intensely private stuff to accusations of wrongdoing by public or private individuals. If the content seems basically private, if it contains misstatements of fact or allegations we can’t substantiate, and particularly if it crosses into libelous or defamatory territory, we explain to writers that we can’t run it as written.
All papers edit for these kinds of things. Newspapers are legally responsible for their content, including that written by non-staff members — such as letters or opinion columns — and so editing for libel is a basic industry rule. It also means wielding a pretty broad brush. There are different legal standards for public figures and private people, so it’s permissible to say elected officials have been acting in a wrong or suspicious manner in their job, but not ok to say the same thing about a neighbor. Wild allegations against anyone don’t fly, and nor do milder but still defamatory statements about anyone’s private life.
What the Block Island Times doesn’t currently edit for, while many bigger publications do, are things like length, tone or good taste. We often get in touch with letter writers over these kinds of concerns, perhaps suggesting that they’re coming on a little strong. But our feeling has been that we’re a community paper and the letters page is the one place where we can offer a true forum, where readers can weigh in without having to go through a lot of filters. In particular, we allow people a chance to respond to anything written in the paper, whether it’s a news story, column or previous letter. We may not always like what people are saying, but we have allowed that space to reflect community sentiment without seriously attempting to change or set the tone.
This reflects our belief that our readers are smart enough to draw their own conclusions from what they read, and that it’s from such a process that positive change comes.
Lately we’ve come under fire from people whose opinions we have always respected, who argue that publishing letters that contain what they see as mean-spirited sentiments harms the entire community. People have suggested that unless we change our policy, no one here will want to run for public office.
That, in a town as impressively self-directing as Block Island, would be a disaster. So we ask you all: What is going on? Is community discourse more fraught these days, and if so, why? Is the paper responsible? And if so, what should we do? Please take the time to visit our poll, which we’re continuing for a second week — you can’t vote more than once, but you can leave as many comments as you like — or leave a comment below this editorial, which is posted in the Comments and Opinion section online. We also welcome letters and emails on the subject, for publication or not.
One final word: the web site. We offer space for online readers to post comments on every story; all they need is a free user account. Comments are not vetted prepublication. They post immediately, and we check them during the working day. Recently a comment was posted that moved readers to get in touch and tell us how offensive it was. We are sorry not to have caught it sooner and thank our readers for the warnings. As in similar past instances, we took the comment down and closed that user’s account, and we are on the alert for more abuse; if there are more incidents, we’ll change our online policy.
Thank you all for caring enough about your local paper to have read this far; we look forward to hearing from you.