How Did the Organizers of the Harper’s Letter Mislead Some of the Signers? (It’s About Ethics in Open Letters)

Aaron Huertas
10 min readJul 9, 2020

Harper’s “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has gotten a lot of attention and there are some fine responses out there already, including this very funny one.

But I wanted to dive into a few specific claims about the letter itself, who signed it and whatever (possibly odd!) process it followed to publication, including troubling claims by two initial signers, and inconsistent solicitations to sign onto the letter from people who took a pass.

[I also did a podcast on this episode, including a few additional updates.]

Debate so open I can see my own brain! And yes, the reference to “it’s about ethics in open letters” is me being glib.

This is a Weird Open Letter

I’ve helped with a lot of open letters over the years on topics like scientific integrity at federal agencies, the need for climate action, and coalition statements in response to specific policy developments.

These letters usually follow a basic process: Relatively high profile convening authors or organizations will craft language, finalize letter text, then solicit more signatories from their peer networks. This helps establish the credibility and relevance of the letter, reduces the impulse for signers to try to edit the text too much, and make it easier for organizers to vet and add on new signers.

Other letters lean into an odd bedfellows approach, e.g. former heads of agencies may band together to offer bipartisan support for a current policy and invite others to sign on. In this case, organizers may use a “Noah’s Ark” method of adding conservatives and liberals to a letter in pairs.

The Harper’s letter is odd because the organizers’ standards for who may or may not have been invited to sign on weren’t clear. In search of a very broad display of ideological and occupational diversity, the list includes authors, journalists, professors, pundits, a tech founder, a union head and legal scholars. It also included writers such as Bari Weiss, who decries attempts to fire people for speech even though she tried to get a professor fired for his speech. (Edit: I fell for this on Twitter because I saw credible people sharing it. My bad! This dude is real and I remember reading about him, but he wasn’t on the letter.)

Aaron Huertas

Democracy is pretty cool. We should try it some time. Voting rights, science policy, political communication and grassroots activism.