From time to time I get word from readers unhappy about, well, you. I don’t mean you, but rather those of you who put the First Amendment through its paces, posting comments to the online forums and blogs that are racist, bigoted, mean-spirited or otherwise over the line in terms of good taste, common sense and our terms of service, which, to be precise, prohibit material that is “unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane or indecent information of any kind, including without limitation any transmissions constituting or encouraging conduct that would constitute a criminal offense, give rise to civil liability or otherwise violate any local, state, national or international law.”
In any case, most of the complainants blame the messenger (The Journal News and LoHud.com) for the posters’ bad conduct. They conclude that the world would be much better of if (1) we screened posts pre-publication and (2) required posters to include their names. The theory of the latter, of course, is that posters would show better form if they had to include their name with posts, thereby “owning” their opinions before family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, not to mention defamation lawyers.
Here’s one comment:
I know it’s important to allow people to “sound off” but your blogs usually get carried away. I think it’s about time they stop. The New York Times does not have them, I’m not sure why we do. Most legitimate agencies do not have the comments, perhaps The Journal is not a legitimate periodical?
If people wrote letters to the editor the same way they write in the blog, those letter would never be printed. I believe the same care should be taken and observed in the blogs. The other thing that is equally bothersome is the “jump on the bandwagon” mentality. If these comments were delivered face to face I believe many would end up in a fist fight. I truly believe if people were required to identify themselves most would not be as bold.
And from another reader:
I do well understand that an open forum will engender distasteful comments and that is something I absolutely encourage in the name of free speech and democracy. And I very much sympathize with you and your fellow editors trying to run a newspaper in this day and age. It is a fine balance you must maintain and not an easy task.
All good points. Here’s how I responded to one reader; I replicate my answer here because it is responsive to the concerns raised by many:
Thanks for your note about the comments in our forums and blogs. I share your concerns about the rude, off-color, inappropriate and otherwise objectionable comments that show up there. They are distressing to me as a journalist and as a citizen; at times they make me fearful that we are a nation of mean-spirited people. We ask that readers alert us to such comments by engaging the “report abuse” button at the end of each post; we review the “flagged” comments for violations of our terms of service and take action as warranted, including banning the worst offenders. As you know, there is no First Amendment protection for defamatory speech, either online or in print.
I won’t debate whether TJN and LoHud.com are “legitimate” publications or whether it is, indeed, “a rarity” that anything positive is ever written in the blogs and forums. I will ask you to take note that (1) millions of posters across the nation “play well with others” every single day in such forums, debating civic affairs and public policy; and (2) that such open forums are hardly unique to TJN. This comports with a reality that is bigger than the NYT or TJN: In the Internet age, people expect to speak when they want, without the traditional filters that apply to printed speech. Congress acknowledges and accommodates this public interest, by crafting liability rules that make plain that responsibility for such comments online rests entirely with the posters, not the entity that provides the forums.
Now, would LoHud.com generate more civil discourse in its forums if posters were required to include their real names when posting? Probably. Only an absolute idiot would attach his name to some of the comments, especially those that are outright sexist, racist or bigoted. But the First Amendment doesn’t command civil discourse or discourse with which everybody agrees. And I’m not convinced that throwing up roadblocks to speech is the best course in a free society. Doing so certainly doesn’t make the objectionable or unpopular ideas go away. Indeed, excluding the ugly sometimes creates a false impression that the ugly doesn’t exists. Congress and the courts resist roadblocks, too. It is settled law that anonymous speech enjoys First Amendment protection in the public square; it is no different where it occurs on the Internet.
We suffer the occasional fool in both venues because more speech is preferable to less speech, warts and all. The sins of some sophomoric posters are no good excuse for shutting up the rest of us.
Anyway, that’s my take on the state of the blogs and forums and how posters’ comments intersect with the First Amendment. To be sure, these are issues we aren’t done with; the conversation continues.