Column: It’s about free speech, not just money

05/31/2012 2:00 AM |

It could well have been a riff from the late, great Gilda Radner’s “Saturday Night Live” days and her classic character Roseanne Roseannadanna. Only this time it wasn’t Mr. Richard Feder from Fort Lee, N.J., who had written in, it was his possibly very-distant relative Ms. Jenny Feder of Greenport, N.Y. (“Ka-ching,” May 24.)

And I quote: “I am dismayed by the Suffolk Times’ willingness to repeatedly publish lunatic rantings on its letters page.

“It must sell papers for them. (Why publish otherwise?)

“On the upside, these embarrassing spewfests are also magic fundraising tools.

“Every time J.C. of East Marion writes another letter, ka-ching, money for the Democrats …”

Busted, again. Why, of course, that’s obviously why The Suffolk Times regularly publishes the pointed offerings of East Marion’s man of letters, John Copertino — to sell newspapers and to not-so-secretly attempt to help its favorite political party.


Let me say that I have the utmost respect for the artistic talents of Ms. Feder, whose marvelous, whimsical constructions of miniature houses are on display in our home and the homes of both of our daughters. But I do have a substantive problem with her conclusions in this instance.

For the record, we publish J.C.’s letters because one of our primary responsibilities as a news organization is to provide a public forum for the dissemination of opinions, no matter how objectionable others may find them. And then, of course, there is something known as the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects the right of Americans to freely express their opinions. And traditionally, newspapers have been a forum for the public expression of those opinions.

Having said that, however, I think it probably is time to revisit our policy on the allowable length of letters to the editor and the frequency with which individual letter writers can expect to have their letters published. There is a danger, and obviously Ms. Feder agrees, that certain letter writers, including the aforementioned J.C., have tended to dominate our letters pages in recent times. And the fault is entirely ours, not theirs, because we set and enforce the policy.

There have been times over the years when our policy has been quite different from what it currently is. For instance, there was a time when letters commenting on national or international issues weren’t published. We intended the letters pages, like all other content in the paper, to be strictly local. But over time, that policy seemed unreasonably restrictive, and we changed it to the point that in some weeks now the letters page could be mistaken for the International Herald Tribune’s.

We also have imposed limits on the length of letters. And although no such limits are cited in the letters policy published periodically — but not consistently — on the letters page, the Times/Review website states the following policy:

“All letters addressed and written exclusively to the editors of The Suffolk Times, the Riverhead News-Review & the Shelter Island Reporter will be published, space permitting, except assertions judged to be libelous; letters about private, personal disputes, unless they are judged to be of significant community interest; and thank-you letters, which may be held to allow opinion letters to appear.

“Third-party letters, such as copies of letters sent to town officials or other parties, will not be published unless they are revised as letters to the editor. Letters should be brief and to the point and must not exceed a maximum of 350 words. Letters are subject to editing for length and clarity. All letters must bear the name of the writer. Use of a pseudonym is not permitted. A mailing address and phone number are required for verification, but will not be published.

“Submission by email with an attached text file is preferred. Letters may also be hand-delivered to our office at 7785 Main Road, Mattituck, N.Y.

“There is no deadline for letters; they will be published in the next available edition as space allows.”

A 350-word limit, huh? Tell that to the gent whose 456-word letter on the 2012 presidential race was published in last week’s Suffolk Times.

Accordingly, and in no small part due to Jenny Feder’s prompting, our letters to the editor policy will be reviewed, revised and hopefully applied consistently, so help me James Madison.