When it comes to letters to the editor, most are fit to be printed. The odd one is not. David Swick looks at a recent instance where a letter was published saying a victim of sexual abuse could have "walked away," the ensuing reaction and the line between censorship and standard civil discourse.

When it comes to letters to the editor, most are fit to be printed. The odd one is not. David Swick looks at a recent instance where a letter was published saying a victim of sexual abuse could have "walked away," the ensuing reaction and the line between censorship and standard civil discourse.

 

A letter to the editor arrives, signed by a local citizen, saying that children who are sexually assaulted could have stopped the abuse, could have walked away. What should the editor do?

At the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix the answer was simple: publish the letter, both in the print edition and online.

Readers’ response was angry and swift, prompting the paper to reconsider its choice. And so the Star-Phoenix followed up with a humble apology, and ran letters denouncing its initial decision.

Often editors – like all journalists – have to decide whether to leave information in or out. Instinct usually says to run everything because, generally speaking, information is good and censorship is bad. But some situations call for more subtle thinking.

Here’s more context on the letter in question. The March 29 letter referred to former NHL star Theo Fleury, who went public with his abuse by former hockey coach Graham James. Last month James was sentenced to two years in prison for hundreds of sexual assaults on Fleury and another youngster.

After the sentencing – and Fleury calling it “a national travesty” – the Saskatoon woman wrote her letter. “Is anyone else as sick of hearing and reading about Theo Fleury as I am?,” she said. “Fleury could have walked away and in doing so may have prevented it from happening to someone else.”

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It's no surprise that such a letter would arrive at an editor’s desk. It's a big world, after all, full of all kinds of weird and wacky views. Anyone reading letters to the editor in any daily newspaper will agree with some and disagree with others. This is good, an exchange of voices: democracy in action.

But while 99% of letters are fit to be printed, the odd one is not. Letters that are best rejected usually have four main characteristics: ignorance, anger, a simple belief, and the ability to cause innocent people pain. This Saskatoon letter had all four warning characteristics.

Does it really need to be said that copious research proves young victims of sexual abuse cannot just walk away? Life is not so simple. Adults exert influence that can leave the young virtually powerless; this is why we have minimum age laws.

Deciding not to run such a letter is not censorship – it’s upholding a standard for civil discourse. Letters to the editor promote a strong exchange of voices. But no paper would run a letter laced with profanity, a letter that proclaims people of a certain skin colour inferior, or a letter supporting the right to possess child pornography.

This letter should not have been run, either.

No one is helped by publishing hurtful ignorance.

David Swick is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax.