Earlier this week we published a letter urging support for North Korea, its writer claiming that Kim Jung-un and his ruling party are “a friend of all working class people.” This is about as eccentric as political views get these days, considering the nearly unanimous international consensus that Kim’s actions are starving many of his people and making life in North Korea hell.
Some readers thought we shouldn’t have published this letter because it was too close to being anti-American. So it’s a perfect example of what’s unique about Voice of the People.
People routinely think of the newspaper as delivering a wide variety of information to them every day, and rightly so. But it also accepts lots of information from people and presents it to the community. Groups and individuals submit events for listings, people talk to reporters and contribute to stories, businesses make announcements, readers comment online, and people in just about all circumstances place advertisements of all kinds.
Of all these expressions in the newspaper by members of the public, Voice of the People is the freest, least restrictive form of communication.
People can send a letter whenever they want, expressing a view on whatever topic or issue they choose, and at no cost.
And they can be sure that it will be published, as long as it meets some not too difficult criteria which The Press Editorial Board makes as plain and simple as possible.
Some of the criteria are printed at the bottom of each day’s Opinion page — basic stuff such as the length limit of 250 words (as many words as are in this column up to the dash in this sentence) and the limit of one letter per writer each 30 days. The criteria in full are on PressofAC.com through a link off of the Voice of the People page.
In all, the criteria balance two interests — to keep Voice of the People as close to First Amendment-level free speech as we can, while adhering to the newspaper’s fundamental mission of being credible, readable and fair.
Some of the criteria are straightforward, some more nuanced and inescapably interpretive.
Letters writers must include their name, address and phone number to help ensure they’re who they say they are and because we print the name and town with the letter.
All letters are edited, just like everything else in the newspaper, including this column. Changes are made to make them quicker and easier to read and understand, to reduce redundancy, and to fix grammar and spelling. Sometimes they’re trimmed so that Voice of the People fits on the page. A central goal of all of this editing is to preserve the meaning and character of the letter.
Many of the criteria speak for themselves. For example:
Letters typically express views about news, facts and figures that have been reported and widely accepted. Information that hasn’t been reported, seems implausible or can’t readily be confirmed may not be published.
Letters expressing views — positive or negative — about private individuals or single businesses will not be published.
And letters are not thank-you notes. Send those directly to those deserving thanks.
A free platform to speak to the community invites abuse from those who want to wage a campaign in favor of a particular candidate, party or position. Political parties would fill the whole page praising their candidates and attacking their opponents in election years if they were allowed. They are not. We count the letters for and against candidates and ensure a rough balance between candidates.
This principle also on occasion applies to others, who submit letter after letter with exactly the same intent. That’s redundant and we may not publish additional such letters.
Hate is never the answer, always a symptom. But in keeping with the First Amendment, we don’t restrict people from voicing their hatred or near-hatred for policies, political figures and even some general human behaviors. We think it’s better to put views and feelings before the community so they can be addressed and everyone can move forward.
We won’t, however, publish a letter expressing hatred for a class of people, for example an ethnic or religious group. We also won’t print a letter advocating violence.
Of economic necessity, we edit letters quickly and apply all of these criteria. Although we’re confident we’re being as fair to all letter writers as circumstances allow and mistakes are rare, they do happen. That’s part of journalism too.
I admire our letter writers for making their views known and taking stands. And the broad picture of the South Jersey community they together brush out is positively reassuring.
Reading Voice of the People is also great fun. Just when you think you’ve heard it all ….
Kevin Post is editorial page editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial page editor