Behind the URL

Why we don't publish anonymous letters to the editors

Recently, The Polytechnic received a letter to the editor from someone who requested anonymity. Our feelings about anonymous articles have evolved over recent years, so we want to take this time to explain the thought process behind the decision not to publish the submission.

We are also introducing a new type of article in our Opinion section—dubbed “behind the URL”—that will be used by members of the Editorial Board to give a behind-the-scenes look at our organization and decisions.

We believe that people should publicly stand by their opinions. When people don’t want to attach their names to their submissions, we have an obligation to ask why. If there is a real danger that physical, emotional, or financial harm will come to the author if their name is revealed, then we will consider anonymity.

An anonymous opinion piece is inherently less impactful—and for good reason. Readers should always be skeptical of the motives of an anonymous author. There is less information by which people can discern the legitimacy of the person’s claims and thoughts.

This decision was not taken lightly. The submission offered potentially valuable information about an aspect of campus that affects a considerable amount of people. We were unable to verify the core aspects of these claims and the author refused to consider attaching his name for fear of losing his job.

Instead of publishing this letter to the editor, we intend on investigating the claims as part of our news coverage. We feel that the Rensselaer community deserves a full-fledged, researched article about this subject that considers all sides of the story.

Over the years, we have had students submit anonymous criticisms of Rensselaer as an institution that span a variety of legitimate issues. Many have all expressed the same fear of retribution when we ask them to attach their names to their articles.

Considering the Dean of Students Office’s pursuit of judicial inquiries against students for protesting on campus, which were later resolved, and Rensselaer’s policies that restrict free speech, we understand this fear. Frankly, sometimes we have it, too.

It is a difficult and unfortunate balance, but we don’t believe that anonymity is the answer. We publish with our names attached because we are willing to publicly stand behind our opinions—even with any associated risks—for the sake of the Rensselaer community and the things we believe in.

If any administrators or employers ask to meet about a submission of yours that we published, tell us. Use New York’s one-party consent laws and record your meetings and phone calls with them. There are plenty of free voice recording apps for phones and computers that are great for this. If there is any discussion about or allusion to disciplining you for critiquing the Institute, that is a flagrant attempt to restrict your right to free speech and The Polytechnic will absolutely write about it. And there are plenty of organizations that would be eager to hear about this and support you in any legal matters, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

In the past, we have published a variety of anonymous opinion pieces that we would not—under our evolved understanding of this issue—publish anonymously now. These include pieces by the organization Save the Union and Save RPI Greek Life, but also pieces with a general organization name attached to them. Using an author like “the Interfraternity Council” without any specific names is effectively anonymous, especially when that article is referenced years after the people who wrote it have left Rensselaer as it is practically impossible to find out who was part of the organization at the time of publication.

With our transition to an online-only publication, our staff editorials—credited to The Polytechnic Editorial Board—also face this problem, as it’s not immediately accessible who was on the Editorial Board at an exact point in time. We used to have a staff box printed in each issue, but we now rarely confine our publication to a single day per week with online publication. Our technology team is currently figuring out how to deal with this issue, and you can see its progress on GitHub.