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Editorial - Impact fees: Another lookMust we list letter-writers' names? Seven readers reply

July 28, 1997

Must we list letter-writers' names? Seven readers reply

Last week I used this column to pass along a reader's concern that The Herald-Mail's policy of requiring letter writers to sign their letter with their real names was keeping some from writing, out of fear that "some nut" would retaliate against them. I asked readers to respond, and this week I'll share them.

The first came by phone from a local government employee who's previously spent lots of time talking to The Herald-Mail's editors, trying to persuade them not to run agency salary lists. He declined to write then because he'd have to sign his name, and favors allowing letter writers to remain anonymous.

Other who commented included:

- Helen Willis, a frequent letter-writer who said she believes that letters should be signed, "so that we know it is an actual letter written by a real person instead of a fake one."

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Willis did suggest that people might be more comfortable allowing the use of their names if the newspaper didn't print the town in which they lived.

- David Culler, who said that "By all means whoever has an opinion that they believe important enough to be put into print must have the courage of their convictions to identify themselves, otherwise their opinion is without merit."

Culler says that the degradation of this society is due to "the silence of moral people that amounts to tacit approval of those who would destroy our very freedoms."

- Pat Myers, who agrees with Culler that letter writers should have "the courage of their convictions and reveal their names..."

However, she says, if the letter writer asks to be allowed to use a pen name, "the editor should use his best judgment" as to whether to grant the request. And when dealing with innocuous letters like those I cited in the July 24 column, "the lack of a signature really doesn't matter" and "it was probably unintentional."

- Another long-time letter writer, who said he preferred not to be identified "whether I praise, condemn or criticize. However, I can see the other point of view."

He concludes by saying that "It will require Solomon type of decision. Lots of luck."

- In a letter marked "not for publication," a Hagerstown man admitted that he had hesitated to write because he feared what responses - physical or otherwise - his letter might provoke.

Then he admitted, however, that when he had written, there had never been any trouble as a result, even when as a student years ago, he wrote a letter critical of school policy. To his surprise, he said, many teachers agreed with him.

His conclusion: Let the rule stand, and leave Mail Call for those who don't want their names used.

- A Hagerstown woman in business here said that if The Herald-Mail wants "to get lively controversial letters, you need to discontinue the practice of printing people's identification with their letters to the editor."

A native of the city who lived for a number of years in metropolitan area, she said she wrote letter to papers there and "...invariably I got hate mail and phone calls from people trying to cure me of my 'misguided' ways. After all, THEY HAD THE ONLY RIGHT ANSWERS ....they told me so!

She has strong views on local issues, but cannot allow her name to be used because it would affect her business.

Do seven responses make a consensus? Maybe they would, if everyone agreed. Helen Willis may have a point when she says that if we stopped listing the writer's town, people might feel more comfortable writing in. I'm less comfortable with Pat Myers' suggestion that I use my "best judgment" to decide whether to let a writer to use a pen name.

Many people now believe that I exercise too much "judgment" when it comes to deciding when their letters appear and what I'll allow them to say. The truth is that we try to print almost all the letters we get in the order they're received, unless the criticize something the paper has done. Those get moved to the head of the list.

Letters with legal problems (libel, slander, use of facts we can't verify, etc.) should be returned quickly with explanations. But that's a job that usually gets done after everything else is finished, so if you don't see your letter in a reasonable amount of time - let's say two weeks - call me at (301) 733-5131, ext. 7622, between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. Or you'd like to take to me in person, please let me know you're coming, so I can set some time aside to listen.

Should we require letter writers to sign their real names? Absent a groundswell of opposition to it, I'm inclined to say yes, but I will talk about it with Herald-Mail's Editorial Page Advisory Board, which should hold its first meeting in early September. As always, additional comments are welcome. Send them to Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.

Bob Maginnis is opinion editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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