The Edmond Sun

Features

January 15, 2013

Letters play their part in the marketplace of ideas

CNHI News Service — “Why did you run that letter?” It’s a question I’ve been asked many times over the years regarding various letters to the editor that are published on editorial pages.

Typically, the people who ask the question are of one political persuasion, while the letter writer is coming from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum — usually the very extreme end.

My basic response is that we publish such letters because that’s part of what we do. Newspapers are supposed to provide outlets for expression, even if some people are unhappy with what they read.

I’ve always thought it takes some level of guts to read a newspaper. If you’re looking only for confirmation of what you like or believe, you’ve come to the wrong place. Read any newspaper long enough, and you will be offended.

Take me. I am offended by the fact my newspaper, the New Castle (Pa.) News, publishes a daily horoscope. I think this is nonsense and an insult to rational thought. But there it is — because some people like it.

As for letters, these are the products of the people who write them. Anyone who reads an editorial page can see the letters cover a vast array of subjects and run the political gamut from far left to far right. Whether we agree with them or not is beside the point.

Allowing people to express their views is an important aspect of a free society. And letters to the editor play a big role when it comes to free speech. Anyone who supports free expression ought to respect the fact letter writers want to say something, even if that means not exactly respecting what they have to say.

I think it’s important to understand why freedom of expression in various forms is protected by the First Amendment. It’s not to be nice and it’s not to be tolerant of others. Rather, it’s out of recognition that no one person or entity holds a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas.

A free society advances and strengthens itself through open debate and discussion of ideas. The purpose is to test ideas to assess their merit. Theoretically, good ideas ultimately are embraced, while bad ideas are tossed by the wayside.

It’s not always a pretty or a smooth process, and sometimes mistakes are made. But it’s a system that allows a society to examine itself on an ongoing basis.

Does that mean any given letter to the editor has ideas or beliefs that others should adopt? Of course not. Some letter writers are flat-out wrong or flat-out silly.

But should we silence them if we come to that conclusion? I don’t think so.

Along with promoting the marketplace of ideas, free expression also creates the opportunity for fools to expose themselves. There’s real value in that concept as well.

MITCHEL OLSZAK is a columnist for the New Castle (Pa.) News.

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