Why do you collapse to criticism from conservatives?

Question: I was sorely disappointed when The Spokesman-Review did away with the Golden Pen Award after receiving some complaints from right-wing citizens who hate free speech. I was also disappointed when the paper added a new column by a right-wing Christian, as if our media is not already dominated by conservatives. Stand your ground!

A few months ago, I sent in a letter to the editor suggesting that Jesus might have been a homosexual. Later, the paper published a dozen letters attacking my sexuality and suggesting I cannot be a Christian. (I am, in fact, an ordained minister with a Ph.D. in theology from one of the top divinity schools in the country. I could not even defend myself or my argument because of your policy about limited submissons.)

Why is it that the S-R was willing to let me endure such deeply personal attacks, yet the editorial staff of the same paper collapses so readily when it is attacked by conservatives? It's a question that I find rather haunting. -- Rev. Dr. Iris St. John, Spokane

Answer: Although the timing may have made it appear otherwise, the decision about the Golden Pen was made months before the uproar arose over a controversial honoree. In fact, that was not the first time the editorial board's choice of a Golden Pen winner had prompted harsh responses from readers who disagreed with the decision. The actual reason for discontinuing the feature is that we simply did not have the time to give such a process the attention it deserves. In fact, what was being presented to readers as a thoughtful, deliberative assessment of the relative quality of 100 or more letters published each week had devolved into a somewhat cursory process. It was decided that our time and energy would be better spent doing what we exist to do -- present a daily package of commentary on important issues facing our readers -- and leave it to the public to judge for themselves which letters are more meritorious than others.

As for the response that sometimes is received to controversial letters, that, I'm afraid, is the nature of an open public forum. While I personally dislike vituperative exchanges between letter writers, I believe we have a duty to embrace a relatively liberal policy of allowing the public conversation to set its own limits -- within reason, of course. Once we take it upon ourselves to sanitize the discussion, we venture onto a path that leads inevitably to the shutdown of the free-flowing expression of diverse opinions that is at the heart of a democratic society.

The frequency rule that limits writers to one letter a month -- and thus discourages back-and-forth debates between individual writers -- also exists to assure a measure of diversity in the voices presented on the letters page. --Doug Floyd, editorial page editor

Follow-up: Readers interested in engaging in more direct, back-and-forth debates with other readers can visit our online forums, where debate often is quite spirited -- Ken Sands, managing editor of online and new media

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