I’ve been in frequent conversations with our Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney over the past few months. He’s a nice guy and I always enjoy talking to him, but the multiple conversations aren’t social calls; they have been necessary due to the passion of our contributors to our opinion page.

There have been a lot of hot topics — frac mining, the trial of a religious group that some call a cult, Houston County building projects and election candidates/issues. People have strong opinions about these subjects. Sometimes, we feel those opinions cross the line of responsible debate.

We encourage a diversity of ideas so people can make up their own minds on issues relevant to their lives. We publish all sides of an issue as we feel healthy debate is the best way to help people make up their minds on complex subjects in our society.

Therefore, the opinions we publish don’t reflect the views of our newspaper. However, that doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible for the opinions that show up in our newspapers.

People who write letters to us or speak out at public meetings can disagree with the opinions of others, but when they cross the line to call another person crooked or claim someone has acted illegally or unethically, that causes problems. It isn’t just an ethical dilemma for our newspaper. It’s also a legal problem.

On the surface, reading about someone going off on a rampage against another person may be amusing — something that seems to have nothing to do with the people at the newspaper. Since our newspaper provides people a forum to espouse their views means that opinions that could damage or even destroy a person are just as much a responsibility of our newspaper as it is of the person with the rage.

We can’t just publish something outrageous and sit back and say, “well that is his opinion.” By providing space for letters or news comments that attack without facts to back them up, accuse without proof or intentionally defame people without regard to the truth, we become a partner in spreading the damage.

Being responsible for damaging a reputation or getting sued for libel are serious consequences for the media. Thus, that’s the reason I’m on a first name basis with our newspaper association attorney, who provides expertise to all the newspapers in Minnesota that are members and sign on for this service.

It is rare that we can’t print a letter at all, and sometimes the reason isn’t just a legal one as we don’t want to get in the middle of “he said-she said” scenarios or criticisms of things that have supposedly taken place, according to the letter-writer, when we have no knowledge if it really did happen.

In most cases, the attorney makes suggestions and we either edit the letter or work with the writer to make adjustments that get the point across without crossing the line. Most people are understanding of the process as they are merely passionate, not vengeful.

The web doesn’t have the same legal rules as print publications, probably because libel laws were written before something like the web was even thought of, but we tend to carry over the same criteria. After all, the damage can be done online just as much as in print.

Besides, our feeling is that the web is confusing enough with easy access to so much garbage that may seem legitimate. We would rather have our site be known as one people can go to for reliable information rather than one that lets people vent, no matter the consequences.

Some people resent the filters put up by media, but our feeling is that there has to be rules, a fair playing field, for debate in our democracy. We want to make it as free-wheeling as possible within the guidelines of a responsible format.

It’s a balance that is tough to find, but one we hope you appreciate, even if you never find yourself on the receiving end of a passionate citizen speaking out on an issue that is dear to his heart.