Gutter talk in cyberspace: how free should speech really be?

Occasionally this space has received comments one would deem offensive (especially if one could remember the days when people apologized for saying damn in polite company) but they are all there, at the bottom of assorted posts. T/S has a “Call out” mechanism for making comments more public. I have occasionally called out comments which strongly oppose a post, but not included the gutter language. The truly offensive just lie there, hopefully unnoticed.

There has to be a limit. Lawyer/journalist Peter Scheer argues for the preservation of some degree of civil discourse in an op ed piece that appeared in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

Some people have no choice but to live in a cesspool. (Consider the young protagonist in “Slumdog Millionaire,” leaping into a pool of human waste in order to escape a locked latrine.) But news organizations are not among them.

The cesspool that many newspapers occupy is the comments sections of their Web sites. This is the space, typically following a newspaper’s own stories and editorials, where readers have their say. If postings to that space are completely unfiltered, it is sure to be stuffed with the rants and invective of people who have too much time on their hands. Reading online comments sections, one can easily get the impression that bigots, psychopaths and conspiracy theorists make up a majority of newspapers’ online readers. (Note to publishers: This is hardly a desirable demographic to show to advertisers.) In reality, such commenters are relatively few in number, although they are, regrettably, loud and prolific.

Facebook, Twitter, etc are, as far as I can tell, wayy outside the parameters of this act. Except for the time a True/Slant post of mine was blocked from Facebook by some anonymous person who objected to the mention of dogs and research in the same paragraph, presumably believing I was supporting cruel and unusual treatment of animals — you had to read the article, which the objecter did not — censorship seems rare on those sites. Not so obscenity and vulgarity and the randomly bizarre.

I am Facebook friends with my grandchildren — the only line of intergenerational communication open to those of us who draw the line at texting. But I try not to look at their pages. My college freshman granddaughter, in fact, recently asked for my Twitter name so she could follow me, but suggested I wouldn’t want to follow her. The brave new world is populated with abbreviated obscenities and codes which might totally replace English; oh, me. But back to the Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 of the act protects newspapers that operate their reader comments sections as a cesspool, permitting readers to post whatever they wish, no matter how libelous or harmful. Injured parties can sue the authors of those online comments, but not the newspaper. The newspaper is shielded, even if it has been given notice that statements in its comments section are false and it refuses to remove them.

But newspapers are equally protected if they act responsibly, screening comments or editing them. The act was intended to give news organizations a perverse incentive to refrain from editing user-generated comments. As long as editors don’t alter the meaning of a comment completely (say, by changing the comment to say the opposite of what was posted), the newspaper will be protected.

Reader comment sections have huge potential. The opportunity to debate both other readers and the journalists responsible for the paper’s news stories and editorials can reflect democratic self-government at its best. However, this ideal can be realized only if editors take seriously their responsibility to edit.

Misconception No. 2 is the belief that to regulate readers’ comments, enforcing rules of civil discourse on a newspaper Web site, is to engage in a form of censorship – and that censorship by a news organization, if not strictly illegal, is at least hypocritical. But this concern confuses censorship with editing. Although the online venue may remove the need to edit comments for length, it does not diminish the obligation to edit for substance.

Ah, substance. And propriety. And civility. And good old-fashioned print newspapers some of us still read over breakfast coffee. My age may be showing here.

Online comments need editing.