Ugly Words

When does a letter to the editor go too far?

The Bohemian‘s letters and opinion pages, appropriately called “Rhapsodies & Rants,” is a free speech forum that invites community views and a wide range of perspectives. Sometimes a rant can create awareness of an issue worth considering. The counterpoint to that is that extremist views, without context or response, can legitimize dangerous extremism.

Two letters to the editor that appeared in our May 16 issue may have crossed a line. The letters were written in response to a May 9 cover story by Tom Gogola about Republican senatorial candidate and anti-Semite Patrick Little, titled “Elephant in the Room.”

The letters took aim at ethnic groups and have been called to our attention as doing nothing to promote a civil public discourse. One letter by a writer who identified himself as a Korean-American wrote that he found Koreans and Korean-Americans “bigoted, ignorant and selfishly indifferent.” The second letter attacked Jewish influence on the American political system and named a number of Jewish individuals.

In retrospect, we should have not published either letter. Neither offered a reasonable argument or advanced a civil public discourse. To argue that any one group of Americans is less American than another, that all members of a group think alike or that anyone should be removed from participating in the democratic system, is repugnant.

Bohemian letters must be free of libel, personal attacks or calls to violence. There is value in airing letters that some readers will find distressing. After all, the First Amendment is not for the protection of pleasantries. It’s for the protection of speech that some—or many—may find offensive. But there is no public service in promoting irresponsible, closed-minded thinking.

Thanks in part to President Donald Trump’s flame-fanning rhetoric, white nationalism has emerged from its dark corner and into the light. The internet is awash with trolls spewing vitriol and emboldened by anonymity. While inflammatory discourse has become more common and acceptable, we’ll seek to keep our pages more constructive in the future by being more vigilant against hate speech.

Stett Holbrook is the editor of the ‘North Bay Bohemian’ and the ‘Pacific Sun.’

Open Mic is a weekly feature in the ‘Bohemian.’ We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 350 words considered for publication, write [email protected].

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