A ‘free marketplace of ideas’ sometimes needs restocking

  • Lew K. Cohn
    Lew K. Cohn

For more than 200 years, dating back at least to Nathan Hale’s Boston Daily Advertiser, American newspapers have not only reported on the news and events of the day which have impacted their readers, but have featured an editorial page and/or another page of opinions located opposite the editorial page (often called an Op-Ed page).

These pages allowed not only the newspaper to give their position or stance on topics of interest, but also allowed opposing viewpoints to express their beliefs (either through guest columns or in letters to the editor) in a free and fair exchange of ideas which offered a much-safer alternative to streetcorner soapbox orations.

Over time, many newspapers developed rules and procedures for allowing columns and letters to the editor to be published within their pages that promoted decorum, decency and fairness while still allowing for the exercise of free speech. And it is to those ideals the Burnet Bulletin tries to ascribe when it comes to the publication of outside content on page 4, our Commentary page.

Recently, this newspaper published a guest column from an individual affiliated with the local Republican Party regarding their beliefs about the use and efficacy of face coverings. The column was itself a response to an earlier published opinion piece from an individual aligned with the Democratic Party who had expressed beliefs which run in opposition to the second columnist.

These columns represented the beliefs and opinions of the people who wrote them and did not reflect, one way or another, the editorial stance or opinion of either this publication or the individual editorial staff employed by this newspaper. Running both columns was done to promote fairness and equity between individuals from opposing ends of the political spectrum on what has become a “hot potato” of a topic during not only a pandemic, but an election year.

Since the publication of these columns, this newspaper has received a number of letters to the editor not only expressing their displeasure with the Bulletin for running one of the two columns, but accusing the newspaper administration and staff of trying to push a political agenda and even calling for punitive action against this newspaper.

A number of these responses contain personal attacks on the writer of the column in question which do nothing to add to the ideal of a “free marketplace of ideas,” but instead are more representative of an attempt to create a bully pulpit.

As a result, this newspaper will be making changes in the way it presents Letters to the Editor or guest columns from people who are not on staff in the future. The first change is that we will include a subclassification of “Opinions and Letters to the Editor” when the page contains those items that are submissions based on issues of the day from the general public.

Those submissions will also include a disclaimer to make it clear that the opinions and writings expressed within are the individual beliefs and ideas of the writer and not the publication.

All letters to the editor and guest columns must continue to be signed and include city of origin in order to be considered for publication and will adhere to a strict word limit. Anonymous submissions will not be published. Letters must be 300 words or less in length, while guest columns are to be no longer than 500-600 words. The managing editor may edit letters and columns for style, brevity and clarity and limit publication to one letter or column per author per a 30-day period.

Ad hominem attacks, or personal rebukes against an individual which impugn an individual’s character or motive without addressing the substance of the issue at hand, are not allowed and either may be edited out of any column or be cause for the disqualification of a submission to the newspaper.

Publication of any column or Letter to the Editor is on a “space available” basis and the subject must be pertinent to the local community and readership. Letters endorsing and/or opposing political candidates are considered political advertising and will be directed to our advertising department for solicitation of advertising.

Please continue to send your comments, letters to the editor and guest columns to me at lew@highlandernews.com or to our publisher Jeff Shabram at jeff@highlandernews.com.

We thank you and appreciate your continued readership, support and understanding as we move forward with what we hope is clarity and certainty in these uncertain times. We value your contributions to our newspaper and welcome your participation.