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The letter to the editor: The institution and the ethic | GUEST VIEWPOINT
BY JOSEPH J. HONICK
Once known simply as the LTE, letters from the public have been for many decades the means for readers to vent their spleen, praise their heroes and generally exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech. This is as it should be in a free society.
In many countries, efforts to exercise such rights often have been either prohibited or met with governmental restraint and outright punishment of those airing their opinions. One of the most famous such declarations was that of J’ACCUSE by the famed Emile Zola on Jan. 13, 1898 in the newspaper L’Aurore. Zola accused the French president and government of anti-Semitism in the prosecution and life sentence of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army general for espionage.
For writing the letter which appeared on the front page of the paper, Zola was found guilty of 23 charges of libel but escaped prison by fleeing to England. However, his letter and its charges were picked up in many countries and have been seen as the genetic expression of free outrage against the powerful.
Fortunately, we don’t impose such treatment on readers who might be offended by the actions of government or those in public life with whom we might energetically disagree. That freedom, however, imposes simple ethical limits of courtesy for such expression. Such ethical conduct suggests the writer avoid demeaning the character of his or her target of criticism and direct commentary at issues, decisions and other appropriate targets instead. This approach is especially appropriate in smaller communities like ours where name calling and other unattractive conduct contribute little to progress and detract much from civilized discussion. Given how political commentary in the recent national election campaigns has been so combative from all sides, suggesting the worst kinds of conduct by opponents regardless of party, it’s almost understandable such rhetoric could seem acceptable locally. Almost, but not really.
We have this precious right of free speech and expression, but Americans learned almost
300 years ago that freedoms have a price, and that price is personal responsibility, one of the few things government cannot tax. Failure to express ourselves responsibly, however, can often result in endless disputes, unnecessary community divisiveness and even legal controversy.
Perhaps a deep breath and a second thought could go a long way when any of us are moved to send that absolutely necessary Letter to the Editor to tell the world of our righteous indignation.
Joseph J. Honick is an international consultant to business and government and writes for many publications, including huntingtonnews.net. Honick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.