Letters to the editor have been a venue of civil discourse for hundreds of years. They’re the precursor of internet chat rooms and comments sections, and an important part of the service newspapers provide.
The policies we have in place for our Letters section exist to create transparency and accountability. Writers are required to put their name to their words, and provide some proof of identity. Traditionally, that meant dropping them off in person. Otherwise, a phone number will suffice. Today, most letters arrive by e-mail.
Although we do have discretion over which letters do or don’t get printed, we take this decision very seriously. It’s rare that a letter is held back. We’ve been forced to reject interesting submissions due to requests for anonymity. Some letters actually break laws; many Canadians are surprised to learn that Freedom of speech doesn’t exist here – that’s an American invention. On this side of the border, there are limits to what can be printed. Canadian libel law holds newspapers legally responsible for the content that we print. If it enters a grey area, or an area that potentially exposes the Fort Frances Times to legal action, we have a team of libel specialists who advise us.
If a letter has an identifiable writer, and doesn’t raise legal red flags, it typically makes its way in, regardless of how controversial its subject matter; we’re committed to representing a wide variety of viewpoints.
As the editor of the Times, I recently got reminded of why these policies are so important. Last week, we received a letter from an individual identifying themselves as Nicole Sheppard. They had a viewpoint. They had a name. They got printed.
And that’s where we fell down. Although we had a conversation through e-mail, I didn’t take the time to ensure Nicole was really who Nicole said they were.
In my haste to represent as wide a spectrum of views as I could, I didn’t go back to the fundamentals of our Letters policy. And for that, I’m truly regretful.
I also regret that anyone felt they – possibly – needed to create a persona and hide behind a shield, in order to be heard. We should all feel that we can publicly express our true selves, and be accepted for who we are – even by those who don’t agree with us.
Nicole is a real person out there somewhere; a real person with thoughts and opinions. Are they a bisexual woman from Emo? No one knows but the letter’s author. However, like everyone else, they are welcome in my Letters section. And, next time, follow the rules.
Because next time, we’ll work harder to enforce them.