During the past month a considerable ruckus was raised by readers who wrote to the Atlantic Highlands Herald, accusing me of various moral and literary crimes, including hate speech, inaccuracy, stupidity, immorality, misinformation, shamefulness, and (my personal favorite) "filth." All this was in response to my article "War on the Boy Scouts" (Feb. 16) and, to a lesser degree, my follow-up article, "Lessons Learned" (Feb. 28). A few wrote to praise my "courage" in taking on this "difficult issue," but most letters piled on with denunciations of my cultural ignorance and anachronistic ethics. Society has "moved on," they collectively said, and so should I. Many characterized the gay Boy Scout dispute as a "civil rights" issue comparable to racial integration during the 1950s and '60s.
There was much declaiming about what I now call "conditional free speech" – i.e., the notion that ideas can be freely expressed, provided that listeners find them acceptable. If not, those ideas become "hate speech" not protected by the First Amendment. The fact that "hate speech" is an extra-Constitutional term, and that the First Amendment was posited for the express purpose of protecting unpopular ideas, seemed lost on those writers. If the letter-writers knew these things, they evidently didn't care and wanted it to be different. ("Damn your Constitution, sir!") Several called on the Herald's editor to retract my articles on this topic – a demand that Editor Allan Dean rejected on grounds that the Herald was meant to be an open forum for all, and that even "hateful" ideas deserved a hearing. However that view may have branded me, I did appreciate his refusal to capitulate to pressure from those writers.
Nevertheless, the question hangs in the air: Do all ideas deserve a hearing? And if not, what criteria determine which deserve hearing and which do not. I could probably be expected to hold the view that all ideas deserve a hearing. Indeed, I do think along those lines. Burning books is a Nazi idea, not an American one. It never suits us as a people, and we should be extremely loath to advocate it. As the Nazis showed, once book-burning gets started, it is devilish hard to stop.
Publication in an organ dedicated to news and the free exchange of ideas is another matter – governed by issues of space and knowledge of who is writing. I know from experience that newspapers are very careful about whose writing they publish. Printing a flood of letters written by unknown parties, as the Herald did in February, is never done by newspapers or magazines. Space and knowledge are the primary reasons. There is only so much space in a newspaper, and the editors can't know who is writing when a large volume of letters arrives. Generally, they will publish a few letters from known persons that seem representative and well written. Every attempt is made to indicate when a writer is an advocate or official of a particular group. And there is usually some effort to maintain a balance of views.
My fellow-columnists of the Herald and I are well known to the Editor – in most cases, personally. He presumably trusts our motives, and he has long experience with our writing – in my case, a decade of columns that he has sometimes called "brilliant, reasoned judgment, like Lincoln." If a controversy arises from something any of us has written, he can stand behind us – not because he necessarily agrees with a point of view in every respect, but because he knows us and has confidence in our personal integrity. This knowledge is critical to publishing sound analysis and good judgment.
Is it similarly known who the writers of letters to the Herald are? Was it known in the case of the angry responses to "War on the Boy Scouts?" I don't know, but I doubt it. Perhaps a few writers were known, but generally we probably have no idea if "Jill Smith" is a real person, if Jill really wrote a given letter, or exactly who Jill is or where she is coming from with respect to her views. Is she a member or paid official of some advocacy group? Is her writing published anywhere else? We have no idea. (Ditto for Joe Smith.) This is risky in publishing. Who is writing is often more important than what is written.
In my case, the oppressive weight of all those critical (and sometimes vicious) letters was much lessened when I read an article written by a nationally published columnist named Rebecca Hagelin. In "Free speech rights don't apply if Liberal Crowd takes Offense" (The Washington Times; 2/28/13), Miss Hagelin related what happened after she wrote a column that criticized the "transgender" lobby for encouraging children to question their sexual identity. Here's the story in her own words:
"Liberals love the First Amendment. Except when they hate it.
"Recently I wrote in my regular Washington Times Monday column, 'How To Save Your Family,' a piece lamenting the confusion created by gender-bending fashion models and the emerging sentiment that little children somehow show their true, transgendered selves when they show 'inquisitiveness about the other sex, and all the trappings of male or female life.' I cited a leading expert on children and gender dysphoria, Kenneth Zucker, who believes that children who seem confused about their gender identity should enter therapy with the goal to 'understand themselves better' and figure out 'what might be causing them to develop what I call a fantasy solution, that being the other sex will make them happy.'
"I ended my column by encouraging parents to affirm their child's masculine or feminine identity, because 'God made us male and female and that's something to celebrate.'
"And for speaking that truth, the homosexual activists have mounted a vicious campaign to silence me.
"The Washington Times is under attack for carrying my column. The paper has been barraged by demands from homosexuals/transgenders and their supporters that my column be banned. And my inbox has been flooded by hateful mail from this same crowd who seek to intimidate and silence me. It's ironic that my critics exercise their free speech by writing the publisher and using the media to criticize my words, but would deny me the same rights.
"This is what passes for tolerance in Obama's America? I've seen this before. It's not the first time the homosexual lobby has tried to shut me down..."
(Please click here for Miss Hagelin's full article.)
In his article, "The Four Reformers," Jeffrey Nyquist details the gay-activist tactic of denouncing all opposition as "hate speech." It's worth reading to gain a wider view of how any opposition to the homosexual lobby's agenda is denounced and attacked. It puts the treatment I got in perspective, and it hoists a warning flag to publishers about accepting unknown writers as "equals" in the news and opinion milieu.
My readers know who I am. But who are all those letter-writers? This writer would like to know. I hope my readers want to know, too. When you publish, you give up all rights to privacy.
[editor's note: It is the policy of AHHerald.com that letters to the editor be accompanied by the writer's name, address and contact phone number for publication consideration. We publish only the name and town of the letter writer.]