Open letter

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J'Accuse…! is an influential open letter written by Émile Zola in 1898 over the Dreyfus Affair.
Bill Gates's Open Letter to Hobbyists from the Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter, January 1976

An open letter is a letter that is intended to be read by a wide audience, or a letter intended for an individual, but that is nonetheless widely distributed intentionally.[1][2]

Open letters usually take the form of a letter addressed to an individual but are provided to the public through newspapers and other media, such as a letter to the editor or blog.[3] Critical open letters addressed to political leaders are especially common.

Two of the most famous and influential open letters are J'accuse...! by Émile Zola to the President of France, accusing the French government of wrongfully convicting Alfred Dreyfus for alleged espionage; and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail, including the famous quotation "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".[3]


In previous centuries, letter writing was a significant form of communication. Letters were normally kept private between the sender and recipient. Consequently, an open letter, usually published in a newspaper or magazine, was a then-rare opportunity for the general public to see what a public figure was saying to another public figure.[4] Open letters, published in newspapers, became more common in the late 19th century.[3]

In the 21st century, documents labeled open letters are common and similar to press releases, with large volumes of open letters being sent automatically to large volumes of newspapers and other publications.[4][3] In other cases, blog posts and posts on social media are considered open letters.[2] Another shift in the 21st century is the increasing prevalence of open letters with many signatories (similar to an online petition).[3]

When academic scientists publish open letters about science, they may use some of the same features that they use in academic writing, such as seeking informal peer review before publication or believing that the act of communicating itself is a meritorious scholarly activity.[5]

Motivations for writing[edit]

There are a number of reasons why an individual would choose the form of an open letter, including the following reasons:


Eric Kaufmann characterizes the authoring of open letters in academia calling for the dismissal of academics as a form of "hard authoritarianism" accompanying political correctness and cancel culture.[9] Others associate open letters with bullying, divisiveness, safetyism (suppressing ideas to ensure a reader's immediate emotional comfort), and a culture of complaining.[6] Online open letters have some qualities in common with gossip, including the impossibility of un-saying what has been disseminated and its use by marginalized groups to complain about others.[10] As the format (a letter, written to one person or group but self-published openly by the writer) does not determine the contents, the contents could be good, bad, or indifferent; they could be helpful or harmful; they could be accurate or inaccurate; they could be thoughtful or thoughtless; they could represent a complex situation with fairness and nuance, or they could reduce it to an overly simplistic "with us or against us" rhetoric.[4]

Open letters tend not to win hearts and minds, especially if there is a limited connection between the writers, the subject, and the nominal addressee.[4] A close connection, such as university faculty writing to the university president about their hopes and goals for university students, is more likely to be effective at influencing a decision than an absent or distant connection, such as students writing to the internet at large about the students' beliefs about a political situation in a country that most of the students have never visited.[4]

Signatories may feel pressured to sign an open letter written by someone else instead of writing their own.[4] Even if the letter is badly written or does not fully or accurately reflect each signer's own views, to refuse to endorse it may be taken as complete disagreement with the general concept.[4] In other cases, the signer may not fully understand the contents.[4]


See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Guerra, Cristela (1 March 2016). "The appeal of open letters and what it says about us - The Boston Globe". Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e O'Shea, Samara (22 March 2012). "An Open Letter ... About Open Letters". Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "The rise of the open letter". BBC News. 23 March 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Filipovic, Jill (10 November 2023). "The Most Confusing Activism Around the Israel-Hamas War". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 12 November 2023.
  5. ^ Graminius, Carin (16 June 2020). "Conflating scholarly and science communication practices: the production of open letters on climate change". Journal of Documentation. 76 (6): 1359–1375. doi:10.1108/JD-01-2020-0015. ISSN 0022-0418.
  6. ^ a b c Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E.; McLaughlin, Neil (August 2022). "Ideacide: How On-Line Petitions and Open Letters Undermine Academic Freedom and Free Expression". Human Rights Quarterly. 44 (3): 451–475. doi:10.1353/hrq.2022.0023. ISSN 1085-794X.
  7. ^ Liu, Jiangmeng; Hong, Cheng; Yook, Bora (27 May 2022). "CEO as "Chief Crisis Officer" under COVID-19: A Content Analysis of CEO Open Letters Using Structural Topic Modeling". International Journal of Strategic Communication. 16 (3): 444–468. doi:10.1080/1553118X.2022.2045297. ISSN 1553-118X.
  8. ^ Compton, Josh; Compton, Jordan L. (June 2023). "Playoff Losses, Mayoral Politics, Image Repair, and Inoculation: Open Letter Sport Communication". Communication & Sport. 11 (3): 616–633. doi:10.1177/21674795211067471. ISSN 2167-4795.
  9. ^ Kaufmann, Eric Peter (1 March 2021). Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship (PDF) (Report). Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. 2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 March 2021. Hard authoritarianism entails no-platforming, dismissal campaigns, social media mob attacks, open letters, and formal complaints and disciplinary action, and stems mainly from a subgroup of illiberal far-left activist staff and students. I find that only a small minority of academic staff are protagonists. Figure 1 shows support for cancellation across five surveys and five hypothetical scenarios involving controversial academics.
  10. ^ Wong Ken, Steph (Spring 2023). ""Worlds appear from her big mouth": The Mutiny of Online Open Letters". C Magazine. Retrieved 12 November 2023.