Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A salute to letter writers: The words of democracy

Last night I attended the Anniston Star Outstanding Letter Writers Awards Dinner. I had a wonderful time listening to the speakers, talking to different editors and mingling with other opinionated folks who care enough about the First Amendment right to free speech to exercise it once in a while.

Editor Bob Davis gave this opening which is reprinted in today's Anniston Star

One of the most acclaimed sportswriters of the 20th century, Red Smith, said of his craft, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

Many of our letter writers, it appears, agree with Red Smith. Though sometimes we wonder precisely whose veins they wish to open.

Such is life in a free society.

Our letters column, as do countless others at newspapers across the country, represents something remarkable. Letters to the editor are an essential part of democracy's DNA, a daily confirmation of the First Amendment's guarantees.

This is why The Star honors its best letter writers with a banquet each year. As has happened for more than two decades, Tuesday night our page's most prolific and skilled letter writers gathered. They heard from New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who speaks this afternoon at 2 at the Houston Cole Library on the campus of Jacksonville State.

One regular of our letter writers banquet, Willard A. McDonald of Ashland, was absent. Mr. McDonald passed away last week. He was 76.

His death inspired us to take a look back at his contributions to the newspaper. He was never shy about expressing his views, which usually landed between the right and the far right.

Of Bill Clinton he wrote, "No one since the founding of America has dragged us down in [greater] shame and disgrace." God had "blessed" Clay County by keeping it alcohol-free. The Star, in his view, was hopelessly misguided in its editorial positions.

The Star's editors always had room for Mr. McDonald's letters. The dirty secret is that we often like the critical letters more than the fan letters.

One by Mr. McDonald nicely summed up what we do and why. Our letters column, he wrote, fosters "freedom of both the press and the freedom of speech to their fullest."

That's our aim.

This got me thinking about how my first letter to the editor resulted in my arrest based on that letter, which was used in the affidavit for the warrant, lost by the DA's office and never produced as evidence at my trial. That one little letter also inspired me to write all these others, inspired me to become very publicly and politically involved, to run for Governor of Alabama and become something of a media starlet on a state, national and occasionally an international level on drug policy affairs.

That one little letter launched me on the road to where I am today. It still shocks me when I think about what those 150 or so words set in motion.

After reading this some folks might be scared to write a letter to the editor if the view they hold is unpopular or controversial....but fear is how we got into this vicious drug war. People became too afraid to say anything against drug policy for fear of being targeted by police, ostracized by their families and neighbors and facing other negative ramifications. So, today we have people like me going to jail for voicing opposition to the drug war. It is easy to understand why folks are scared to speak up on this issue in Alabama.

But free speech is what drives democracy. Even when it is anything but free as in my case. Sure, they arrested me, jailed me, called DHR to try and take away my children and dragged me through an never ending kangaroo court trial....but that only made me exercise my free speech rights LOUDER and more PROLIFICALLY. My speech is free even if I had to fight the bastards for five years to prove it. I will never stand by allow it to be taken from me or from you. It is worth fighting to the death for.

Even if you have to take some heat you should still engage in the debate. Our laws are supposed to be formed through vigorous public debate. If those in power never hear from us on the editorial pages then they assume everyone agrees with them and that what they are doing is right and proper and based on the will of the people.

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