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A case for printing 'name withheld' letters.

Few things will get an opinion page editor riled 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 letters, they open themselves to libel 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 (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 and Cato's Letters, for example -- were published under pseudonyms. Untold thousands of citizens offered their views on everything from local taxes to the Civil War under the signatures of "A Farmer," "A Soldier," and "A Citizen."

It wasn't just "little papers" that did so. The very first letter to The New York 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 and the Los Angeles Times throughout the 1960s.

The movement to ban unsigned letters may have started right here, in The Masthead, 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 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 of the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists: "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 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" 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 breader@uwm.edu
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Author:Reader, Bill
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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