EDITORIAL: You got something to say?

CALM DOWN. TAKE A DEEP BREATH. That’s the adult way to react when provoked. When I was a kid, though, the proper response included an exchange that ended with something like: Oh yeah? Well, so’s your mother….

This enlightened dialog inevitably led to punches and, in the more memorable cases, a non-life-threatening loss of blood attesting to honor preserved. Sad to say, but I was such a crummy fighter that my father asked a colleague of his, a former professional boxer, to give me lessons. Put on the gloves and hit somebody who hasn’t insulted you mother? What were they thinking?

World news reminds me how lucky we are not to have to fight physically to protect ourselves and our families every day. We have the great privilege to air disagreements in court, and sometimes, especially around elections, in the media. But we need a few rules to make the system work, and with the primaries now complete this is a good time to outline the steps we take to foster the liveliest forum possible for political speech.

This year all elections are local other than the regional race for two seats on the state Supreme Court. Each of the 18 towns in Columbia County has somebody running for something. There are also four countywide races – County Court judge, district attorney, treasurer and coroner.

County government is run by a board comprising the supervisors of our 18 towns plus five supervisors from the City of Hudson. The seats of 16 of the 23 supervisors are up for election this fall. You need a supercomputer and the entrails of a chicken to analyze the various combinations of weighted votes cast by the supervisors, and we voters have become so politically squirrely that no one can predict who will hold the reins of power here after the dust settles November 8.

Letters about the candidates in all these races have begun to trickle in. We hope that turns into a flood as Election Day nears. We will try to publish all of them, adding pages if we need to. Scheduling is crucial. The last print edition of The Columbia Paper before the election is Thursday, November 3; the deadline for that issue is Friday, October 28.

The early deadline gives us time to call the writer of each letter, verifying that a real person wrote it. We put aside letters that arrive without a contact phone number. We don’t publish unsigned letters and we won’t withhold the names of the people who identify themselves but ask to have their letters published anonymously.  We don’t publish your phone number.

If your letter calls someone, even us, an unpleasant name, we may not like it but we’ll usually publish it as long as the letter avoids personal attacks and outright profanity. Some letter writers accuse others of violating the law. We reject those letters. We might investigate the claims, but we aren’t a police agency.

As a practical matter it’s a lot easier and cheaper to process letters that arrive by email than it is to handle hard copy of any kind, including faxes. It’s a sad comment on our times that handwritten letters pose the biggest obstacle to communication, and we’ll do our best to typeset your penmanship or scan your typed pages in time to get them in the paper, but we can’t guarantee we’ll succeed.

We plan to continue our policy of restricting letters in the last edition before the election to those from candidates responding to charges previously made against them in The Columbia Paper and to positive statements from any writers about people seeking office. We don’t publish negative letters in that issue, because candidates won’t have a chance to respond. If you want to slam somebody politically, don’t wait to do it.

One final tip: edit yourself. Aim for 500 words or fewer. Your readers are as busy as you are. They see a long letter, they tell themselves they’ll get back to it later… and later never comes.

The only fights I look for these days are political. They remind me that democracy has life left in it when people care about how and by whom we are governed. We’ll cover some races in these pages and online at www.columbiapaper.com. There will be political ads. Candidates will come to your door. But letter writers have the power to influence their fellow voters. We offer these pages for you to seize that opportunity.

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