Connections: Freedom Hall

The icing on the cake

    The letters to the editor in The East Hampton Star, to me, are the icing on the cake. I was about to say they are the spice in the stew, but stewing is not only a method of getting a batch of foods together and cooking them, but also means fretting or fussing . . . and maybe making a fuss isn’t quite what some letter writers need to be further encouraged to do.

    Be that as it may, I try to read everything in every issue of The Star and leave the icing on the cake for last. Even though I usually have a bit of a head start, by reading the editorials and a number of the news stories before they see print, I don’t always attain that goal. Aside from the obvious fact that there’s always a lot in the paper, I am a slow reader. To be honest, I sort of pride myself on being a slow reader, because I decided some years ago that slow readers make good proofreaders. I like to think I’m good at it.

    A long time ago, in the 1970s to be exact, we had a brilliant young man on the editorial staff who was a terrible proofreader. At first, I thought it was an anomaly, but eventually I decided that the words on a page went from his eye to his brain so fast that he couldn’t register anything but the meaning. He wrote very, very slowly, every word chosen carefully and spelled correctly, but he wasn’t much use when the time came to check letters to the editor for typos and such.

    The late Everett Rattray, who more than 50 years ago established The Star’s policy of printing every letter received (unless obscene or libelous), used to call our letters pages Freedom Hall. The idea of Freedom Hall referred, in part, to his decision to run letters that expressed opinions that some would consider hateful: This country doesn’t need the First Amendment to protect speech that everyone likes; it is the opinions that are out of the mainstream that need protection. (If you think back on the history of the 20th century, and the ways in which nationalism and group-think can run amok, you will understand that this principle is true.) He also agreed that we should print letters that seemed flat-out crazy. Who were we, he asked, to judge?

    Of course, I have to admit that I enjoy it when the print gossip columns and electronic celebrity Web sites pick up something from our letters, as they have since we ran a letter from Alec Baldwin on Oct. 3. But, honestly, it wasn’t Mr. Baldwin who got me thinking about the letters pages but Paul Thorton, the editor of The Los Angeles Times.

    Mr. Thorton has announced that he will no longer publish letters to the editor from climate-change deniers  because their statements are factually inaccurate. This gave me pause. In my opinion, an informed society requires access to what people are thinking, whether right or wrong. If I had Mr. Thorton’s ear, I would suggest that, instead of a ban, an editor’s note pointing to a legitimate scientific source would serve his readers better.

    By the way, Alec Baldwin is in The Star again this week, responding to a letter last week from an East Hampton photographer he had lambasted. There’s no doubt that our letters pages are a continuing and lively community bulletin board, and I am happy to say the digital revolution hasn’t put a damper on it one bit.