A case for printing 'name withheld' letters.Few things will get an opinion page editor riled rile
tr.v. riled, ril·ing, riles
1. To stir to anger. See Synonyms at annoy.
2. To stir up (liquid); roil.
[Variant of roil.]
Adj. 1. up as will the suggestion that more newspapers should honor "name withheld" requests on letters to the editor. Editors will defend the sanctity of their "must sign" policies, arguing that they are upholding the principles of democracy, maintaining civil discourse, and preserving the traditions of journalism ethics.
More often, you hear a variation of, "If you don't have the guts to sign your name, you don't deserve to have your say." From a pragmatic approach, many editors also contend that when newspapers publish unsigned unsigned
(of a letter etc.) anonymous
Adj. 1. unsigned - lacking a signature; "the message was typewritten and unsigned"
signed - having a handwritten signature; "a signed letter" letters, they open themselves to libel libel 1) n. to publish in print (including pictures), writing or broadcast through radio, television or film, an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation, by tending to bring the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of suits or charges of ethical breaches.
It's hard to argue that such staunch positions stand upon anything but the highest of ideals and the best of intentions. Perhaps more so than any other person in the newsroom, the letters editor is the fiercest defender of the right to free speech and the value of public discourse. And, to be honest, I used to stand with the majority of editors on the issue of anonymous or "name withheld" letters. But after doing extensive research on the historical, legal, and ethical issues involved, I have changed my mind.
History offers little evidence to support the major arguments against publishing unsigned letters. Nor does the precedent of libel law. Nor do the codes of ethics that so many journalists struggle to uphold. In fact, the evidence suggests that the "must sign" policies of the vast majority of U.S. newspapers actually violate the traditions of American journalism, do not support the spirit of the First Amendment in the eyes of the law, and contradict con·tra·dict
v. con·tra·dict·ed, con·tra·dict·ing, con·tra·dicts
1. To assert or express the opposite of (a statement).
2. To deny the statement of. See Synonyms at deny. (if not violate) widely held ethical guidelines.
Until the 1950s and '60s, many U.S. newspapers published letters without names. Until then, the unsigned letters were a tradition reaching back to pre-Revolutionary newspapers. Some of the most influential essays in American history -- the Federalist Papers Federalist papers
formally The Federalist
Eighty-five essays on the proposed Constitution of the United States and the nature of republican government, published in 1787–88 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in an effort to persuade and Cato's Letters The essays called Cato's Letters were written by two Englishmen, concealing their identities with the honored ancient Roman name of Cato. They are considered a seminal work in the tradition of the Commonwealthmen. , for example -- were published under pseudonyms This article gives a list of pseudonyms, in various categories. Pseudonyms are similar to, but distinct from, secret identities. Artists, sculptors, architects
It wasn't just "little papers" that did so. The very first letter to The New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of Times, printed September 19, 1851, was signed "Visitor."
The Times continued to publish letters without names through the 1930s. It wasn't until 1973 that the Times started publishing its "must sign" policy on the editorial page. Unsigned letters could be found in the Chicago Tribune Chicago Tribune
Daily newspaper published in Chicago. The Tribune is one of the leading U.S. newspapers and long has been the dominant voice of the Midwest. Founded in 1847, it was bought in 1855 by six partners, including Joseph Medill (1823–99), who made the paper and the Los Angeles Times Los Angeles Times
Morning daily newspaper. Established in 1881, it was purchased and incorporated in 1884 by Harrison Gray Otis (1837–1917) under The Times-Mirror Co. (the hyphen was later dropped from the name). throughout the 1960s.
The movement to ban unsigned letters may have started right here, in The Masthead mast·head
1. Nautical The top of a mast.
2. The listing in a newspaper or periodical of information about its staff, operation, and circulation.
3. , during the 1950s and '60s. In various essays about letters, some editors discussed how they were no longer publishing letters without names, with the goal of improving the quality of submissions and making the forums more interesting to readers, which, while certainly important, are not goals that have much to do with tradition or ethics.
Those arguments may have become the view of the majority: By 1995, an estimated 84% of newspapers required names to be printed with letters. (See "Most newspapers receive more letters," by Suraj Kapoor, in the Summer 1995 issue of The Masthead.)
But what about the threat of libel suits, always a legitimate concern? A review of case law shows that the mere practice of publishing letters without the writers' names has absolutely no bearing on libel cases, since a signed letter can be just as libelous In the nature of a written Defamation ,a communication that tends to injure reputation. as an unsigned one.
In fact, the federal courts have long defended the constitutional right to anonymous speech. Chief Justice William Brennan wrote in the 1971 decision of Rosenbloom v. Metromedia: "We honor the commitment to robust debate on public issues, which is embodied in the First Amendment, by extending constitutional protection to all discussion and communication involving matters of public or general concern, without regard to whether the persons involved are famous or anonymous ...."
Those sentiments have been upheld in more recent Supreme Court decisions, including the majority's description of anonymous speech as an "honorable tradition" in the 1995 case McIntyre v. Ohio. The courts often point to the beneficial uses of anonymity in our society, from the honesty of students when they anonymously evaluate their teachers to the sanctity of the voting booth. In the eyes of the courts, what matters most is what is being said, not who is saying it.
Modern "must sign" policies, though, tend to put on emphasis on the who over the what. That is, at best, ethically questionable. Consider this tenet TENET. Which he holds. There are two ways of stating the tenure in an action of waste. The averment is either in the tenet and the tenuit; it has a reference to the time of the waste done, and not to the time of bringing the action.
2. of the Code of Ethics Code of Ethics can refer to:
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ, formerly known as Sigma Delta Chi : "Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid."
Now consider this: Several studies over the years have shown that the majority of letter writers are white, middle-class, conservative males. Even detractors of unsigned letters acknowledge that some people -- including the elderly, women, racial minorities, and others who are socially and economically vulnerable -- may not feel comfortable submitting letters for publication.
One editor I interviewed, whose newspaper is in a state capital, said that few government workers submit signed letters regarding state issues. Another editor, whose paper is in a military town, expressed similar frustrations about having to reject good letters from low-ranking soldiers.
The SPJ SPJ Society of Professional Journalists
SPJ Self-Protection Jamming
SPJ Small Project Job
SPJ Steel Pile Jacket
SPJ Spool File by Job Agent Code also suggests journalists avoid quoting anonymous sources, or to at least do so only with suspicion. But we all know that unnamed sources have the run of the news section: "Nobody has a name in Washington" is a joke that stopped being funny long ago. By withholding the names of public officials in news stories, and then denying the public the ability to respond similarly on the opinion page, newspapers create a double standard that is hard to deny.
None of the evidence above suggests that "must sign" policies should be scrapped, or that there aren't any legitimate reasons for having such policies. It's likely that if more newspapers suddenly started publishing letters and withholding names, they would get many more questionable submissions and would be criticized by many readers and colleagues. At the least, the workload would increase considerably for the letters editors.
But can a newspaper that refuses to publish letters without names honestly describe its letters section as a true "public forum" that is really "open to all comers all who come, or offer, to take part in a matter, especially in a contest or controversy.
- Bp. Stillingfleet.
See also: Comer " and supports the "traditions of democracy"? Or are "must sign" policies more akin to requiring voters to sign their ballots? The difference is that editors have the constitutional right to publish or not. The question is whether we live up to the spirit of the First Amendment when deciding not to give "A Citizen" his say.
Bill Reader is a lecturer of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He was opinion page editor of the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., from 1998 to 2000. E-mail him at email@example.com