May 28, 2001 11:00 pm

The editorial/opinion page of a newspaper often is referred to in journalistic circles as the backbone of the newspaper. The page in The Observer it is called Opinion provides a forum for ideas and opinion. Sometimes the opinions expressed in editorials, columns and letters to the editor are controversial. Some will raise our blood pressure. Some well agree with. And some are just plain off the wall. But thats OK. They are the writers opinions.

The Observers policy for printing letters and guest columns is wide open. We print most of what we receive. We dont print lists of thank-yous and we dont run letters where it is apparent one person has an ax to grind against a local business. Nor do we run submissions from outside the area that appear to have been batch mailed, faxed or e-mailed to every newspaper in the state. And we wont allow potentially libelous statements to be made in letters. But other than that, The Observers letters and guest column policy is wide open.

Most importantly, we wont screen out letters that we might disagree with even those that take The Observer to task. And rarely will we add an editors note to respond to a letter. A newspaper ought not to always have the last word.

A subscriber recently submitted a note with a renewal that pointed up the need to explain the purpose of the Opinion page. The reader suggested that we disallow letters that question the agricultural community. The note said:

To the editor: I want to protest that letter the other day denouncing ranchers. They are the backbone of this country. Why do you allow such garbage in the paper?

The answer is easy. As outlandish as opinions expressed on this page can be, The Observer would be doing readers a disservice if it only ran those opinions with which most of its readers or newspaper management could agree. Publishing letters or guest opinions of any stripe is not an endorsement on the part of the newspaper. The newspaper is providing the forum for readers to share opinions. The last thing a newspaper should do is screen letters on the basis of the opinions expressed.

As objectionable as some of the opinions might be to some readers, The Observer hopes that everyone would remember one of the most important tenets of this country the First Amendment, the right to free speech.

Were all entitled to our opinions, and the Constitution guarantees the right to express those opinions. Newspapers that would disallow opinions based on their viewpoint wouldnt be fulfilling their role nor upholding the First Amendment.

A general circulation newspaper such as The Observer isnt a mouthpiece for only one point of view. The objective of The Observers editorial page is to allow a cross-section of viewpoints. Readers are encouraged to respond if they agree or disagree.

We hold the First Amendment near and dear to our hearts. We would hope that readers do the same.