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Should letters writers have secret indentities?

July 23, 1997

Over the last two weeks The Herald-Mail has received a couple of unsigned letters about the most ordinary subjects - the joys of splashing in a rain puddle and the Sunday concerts at Washington County's Pen Mar Park.

Because the opinions expressed were hardly controversial - splashing is fun and the concerts are nice - it seemed that the writers might be unaware that we don't publish unsigned letters. I added a gentle reminder to last week's column and thought that would be that.

Then I got a call from a gentleman (who did not want his name used) who said that our policy of requring writers to list their names and the general area in which they live is disturbing. With so many nuts out there today, he said, some people who have good opinions hestitate to express them for fear that someone might retaliate against them.

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After some discussion, I agreed to submit it to you, the readers, to express your opinions about this policy. Let me also provide some history.

Long before I got this job, The Herald-Mail allowed writers to sign letters with their initials, or with descriptive titles like "Concerned Parent" or "Angry Taxpayer." There was even an old gentleman named Ellsworth Moats who used to sign his letters "Publius II."

Other than Moats, who didn't try too hard to hide who he was, most wanted their indentities concealed because they were attacking (or pointedly criticizing) some person or institution. After they appeared, the targets of those letters would call The Herald-Mail, demanding to know the writer was.

We told them that we knew, but couldn't tell them. Almost every time, their response was the same: "I'll bet you made up that letter yourself."

Disproving that charge without revealing the original letter-writer's name was impossible, and so we finally determined that if someone wanted to criticize someone publicly, they ought to be willing to sign their names.

We have been liberal in our policy on how we allow them to sign. "Mary Frances Smith" can be "M. Smith" or "M. Frances Smith," of some other variation, as long as it's a version of her real name.

Is my caller's fear justified? Would "some nut" target someone who wrote a letter? It hasn't happened, to my knowledge, although there was one local elected official who used to call up letter writers to try to "set them straight."

And during the controversy over the "crosses" at the Eastern Elementary School, I got calls from some members of Hagerstown's Jewish community, who wanted to express the opinion that public schools shouldn't be inhospitable to those who aren't Christians. But they feared doing so, worrying, in one lady's words, that "someone would come and break my windows out."

Since World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust are still fresh in the minds of many Jews, I kept their identities secret and wrote a column expressing their views, which is something I've done from time to time.

But I can't spend all my days doing that, however, and there is value in knowing who's writing a letter. During an election campaign several years ago, we printed a letter from a woman who extolled the virtues of one candidate, saying that she'd worked with him and gained much insight into how government worked.

Almost immediately another letter-writer replied. He asked why, if the candidate was such a great guy, hadn't she revealed that she was his daughter, and that her last name was different than dad's because she had married?

Finally, those who want to remain anonymous can express their thoughts to Mail Call, though there is no guarantee that every caller's message will appear.

What do you think? Should letter writers have to reveal their names? Send your thoughts to Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.

***

Bill Kaufman, whose family was burned out of their Westside Avenue home in Hagerstown recently, is staying with his daughter in Florida while the home is being rebuilt. He reports that it is so hot down there that the frankfurters being sold on the boardwalk have sunblock on them instead of mustard.

He can still laugh, but a member of the Maranatha Brethren Church reports that the trust fund set up to help this old gentleman, his wife and his daughter's family, all of whom lived in the same house, hasn't attracted much cash.

To donate, visit any branch of Home Federal Savings Bank and give to the Kaufman Trust.

***

Terry Stouffer, the Mt. Aetna fire chief whose house burned last Friday, lost everything but the company fund-raising money he locked in his strong box following last week's car wash at the Sheetz store, located at the corner of Md. 66 and U.S. 40 East.

That event was a general fund-raiser; this week the company will do the same thing this Saturday at the same location from 9 a.m., to 3 p.m. to help Stouffer with whatever insurance won't cover. This is one of the people who comes out in the middle of the night when you're in trouble, so come on out and help him.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of the Herald-Mail newspapers.

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