Private citizens not fair game for letters

By David Stevens

Most letters to the editor received by the Clovis News Journal are published, especially when the writer follows the parameters outlined daily on this Opinion page.
Letters must be no more than 300 words, they must be on topics of general interest and the writer must be identified. Letters may be edited for style and for clarity, but no attempt is made to change a writer’s opinion. We welcome different viewpoints, even when they’re different than our own viewpoints.
But we received three letters last week that were not published. Here’s why:
Two letters alleged unethical actions by private individuals and one letter alleged criminal activity by a private business. In all three cases, I believe the letters were unfair — and potentially libelous.
First, the targets did not have a chance to defend themselves. And while public figures are always fair game for public criticism, I’m not sure private individuals should be held to the same standards. They aren’t in libel law, that’s for sure.
One letter may lead to a news story. It alleged an area business held a promotional contest for a prize, but never gave away that prize and never intended to give it away. One of our reporters is looking into advertisements published in connection with the event. We also will talk with the district attorney’s office and the business owner before deciding whether we should write a story.
That letter was not published because it alleges a crime has been committed when no criminal charges have been filed. It is serious business to allege someone has committed a crime; we need to see if police are investigating the allegation. We also weigh what benefit publishing the letter might create for a writer, if any. For example: Are there any ties to a competing business that may offer the writer a competitive edge?
A second letter we didn’t print criticized an umpire at a Little League baseball game. While the writer did not name the umpire specifically, she provided some readers enough information to identify the umpire. She named the teams involved and the time the game was played.
The letter alleged the umpire was biased. If the game had involved professionals, or even college players, I would have been more comfortable giving public voice to the umpire’s critic. But this was a game involving children and it seems unlikely anyone had anything significant to gain by fixing the game. I’m not sure a private citizen’s perceived honesty is fair game for public comment without more substantiation.
The third letter alleged a private contractor did a poor job of repairing a house. The letter writer said court records are available to prove her case and her mission was to prevent others from hiring this man.
My concern is some businesses regularly fail to meet the standards of excellence set by their customers, and sometimes they get sued. Sometimes those stories are of interest to the public, but the contractor deserves a chance to respond to the allegations — the first report should not be a one-sided letter to the editor.
All three letters have one thing in common: They question the integrity of private individuals. I think allegations that “she’s a cheater” or “he’s a crook,” should be carefully scrutinized by an objective observer before they’re given credibility in a public forum — especially when they involve private citizens.
Our newspaper will not hesitate to give voice to those who want to criticize the actions of the mayor or the police chief or the newspaper editor. Public figures are fair game for fair comment. They know that when they step in the public arena.
Private citizens are a different story.
From the Editor’s Desk is a weekly memo to CNJ readers. David Stevens can be reached at 763-6991, extension 310, or by e-mail:
david_stevens@link.freedom.com