Remembering that we're trying to pioneer Talk Newspaper here, I appreciate reader comments on two recent columns.




The first (July 12) took a new look at an old issue: the F-15 jet flyover that kicks off our Fourth of July parade. A segment of Ashland has chafed for years at the honored position given to these instruments of war. But this year had some added spice: In the course of flying over 10 separate July 4 celebrations, the two jets burned 6,000 gallons of fuel, just as we're realizing that gasoline is unlikely to see the underside of $4 per gallon again. I asked who'd like to see hot air balloons or powered paragliders for next year's flyover. Or"&

166;what have you got?




Lance sent in the picture of a perfectly whale-shaped dirigible that doubles as a hotel. "The design for the Manned Cloud has a cabin that can accommodate 50 guests plus a crew of 25. Mr. Massaud, the designer, says, 'It's a romantic project, but then look at Jules Verne.'"




"This is a great topic, and I appreciate the opportunity to mull it over," AH wrote in. "I don't think of bombs when the jets go over (although I suppose I should). I think of the awesome skills required to build one and fly one of those machines, and the courage that men and women display when they volunteer to serve in the military.




"As for your alternative flyover ideas, I say Great! but let's make sure we are completely PC if we're going that route"&

166; What are the balloons made of? How will they be disposed of? If it all checks out, I say let's lead the parade with one, then give kids a chance to climb aboard in the park."




"Guarding the Boundaries" (July 19) offered my appreciation for both the ACLU, which took the Ashland Chamber of Commerce to task for charging parade entries more if their message was political, and for the Chamber, which quickly decided to change the rule rather than mount a bloody battle of resistance. I liked that the Chamber decided that this was not big deal, rather than hunkering down out of pride just because they were publicly challenged. I also said that the ACLU, whose card I carry in my pocket, serves us all as an early warning signal when liberties start to erode: "What might sometimes look like making mountains out of molehills is often flattening molehills before they become mountains."




A reader named John was having exactly none of that. John pitches into numerous online discussions with an annoying combination of two habits: He usually disagrees with me and his comments are usually astute. John zeroed in on my impression that when no one bothers to pause and take a deep breath the way the Chamber did, we often get "different segments of the community whack[ing] away at one another for weeks on end."




Says John, "Having made this unflattering characterization to the public discourse, you go on to extol the virtues of lawyering up to threaten court action. Jeff, the court process is antithetical to public dialog. But consider: our village took the time it needed to get Jen (the Naked Lady) off its chest. The courts weren't involved. The parade went on. No one was hurt, no property was damaged. Now, a few of the issues that rankle Ashland may ultimately need to be settled in decorous venues with paid professional combatants and referees steeped in arcane lore, but to smile approvingly on that process while holding your nose over the public's attempts to resolve its issues without resolving to legal venues makes me wonder if you don't prefer the courts to discourse."




I told you he's astute.




John's right to suggest that there are tricky issues that we manage to work out pretty well among ourselves, and the Naked Lady might be a good example. But there are plenty of others &

the fights over the proposed charter amendments and Mt. Ashland come to mind &

where a whole lot of whacking hasn't done much more than leave a lot of angry people stunned by the side of the road. And as to "lawyering up" (doesn't that the phrase come from prime-time TV when the tough cops find out they can't beat up their suspects?) John won't find me defending every real or threatened use of lawsuits in civic life.




But this I know: governments and organizations don't change constitutionally dubious rules because citizens come to them hat in hand, politely pointing out a potential problem. If there's ever been a rule-reversal on civil liberties that didn't involve attorneys, and the implicit hammer of lawsuits if reasonable discourse doesn't succeed, I haven't heard of it. Experience shows that we need the rigor of the law, and practitioners who know how to use it, to keep fidgety official hands off the Bill of Rights.




I don't prefer the courts to discourse, John. But I do prefer the way the ACLU drives principled stakes in the ground to the steady drift toward authoritarianism that &

unless I miss my guess &

you sense as strongly as I do.




Thanks for writing.




is the author of "As If We Were Grownups," "Forest Blood" and the new novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts at )