Monday, September 29, 2008

Blogging About Blogging

September 29, 2008, 9:45 a.m.

"Censorship" and Anonymous Electronic Speech

The Daily Iowan has, without explanation, removed comments, and shut down the ability of readers to add more, to a couple of stories about the UI's President Sally Mason. Until the paper explains what happened and why it is premature to assume it was either a "computer error" or an outrageous bit of state censorship.

[See Amanda McClure, "No Raise for Mason," The Daily Iowan, September 26, 2008, and Amanda McClure, "Mason Apologizes to Regents," The Daily Iowan, September 26, 2008, and the six comments complaining about those deletions posted between September 26 11:34 a.m. and September 28 7:41 a.m. to Lauren Sieben, "Regent: No 2nd Thoughts," The Daily Iowan, September 26, 2008.]

But that's not the only bit of blogging news.

Some of the best literary as well as policy writing on the Press-Citizen's editorial pages occurs when the paper's own editorial page editor, Jeff Charis-Carlson, writes and publishes a piece that is entirely his own.

But it's a significant commentary about the role of blogs and other forms of electronic speech these days that someone who has such exclusive access to his own editorial page in a newspaper also chooses to communicate by way of a blog.

It's especially appropriate that he would do so in this case.

He's blogging about blogging.

Specifically, he's addressing some of today's hot issues surrounding the propriety of mainstream media permitting on their online Web sites anonymous comments from readers about stories in the paper's hard-copy edition. These comments can sometimes include those that are little more than name calling and mean-spirited allegations with little or no factual basis, coming from those able to hide their lack of decency and manners behind their anonymity.

Charis-Carlson sides with the practice of anonymous speech utilized by three of our nation's founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Jeff Charis-Carlson, "Anonymous Online Comments: Good, Bad or Just Ugly?", September 24, 2008, 4:24 p.m. He begins:

I was asked to take part in an Iowa City Public Library panel discussion on Online News and Message Boards. I had prepared five-minutes worth of introductory remarks, but the organizers launched right into questions. So, I thought I'd share these remarks with the people who could appreciate them most -- anyone reading and commenting on

"Introduction for the Intellectual Freedom Festival: Online News and Message Boards."

Last week, I attended the annual convention of the National Conference of Editorial Writers — this year in Little Rock, Ark.

As you can imagine, our focus was primarily on trying to justify our own profession at a time when anyone with an Internet connection can set himself or herself up as a purveyor of opinion.

Not only did we discuss the issues arising from our own anonymity — writing the nameless consensus opinions of our editorial boards — but we had many discussions on the degree to which allowing anonymous online responses to news and opinion articles either:

a) Represents a revolution in citizen journalism (which is good),

b) Provides a crass way to drive up online traffic statistics at the expense of reasoned, vetted, well-edited news and opinion (which is bad), or

c) Does a lot of both (which is just ugly).
The three witnesses called by Charis-Carlson are, as you'll recall the authors of the famous and influential "Federalist Papers," writings encouraging the ratification of the Constitution while impressing the authors' interpretations of it upon the public and judges who followed. They chose to write anonymously, using the name, "Publius." (Originally published as newspaper articles, October 1787-August 1788, they were ultimately published in book form as The Federalist (J. and A. McLean, 1788).)

The courts have tended to look favorably upon anonymous speech as well -- and to some extent for the same reasons Charis-Carlson identifies: "at times, cyber-anonymity is the only way to allow contrary opinions to be raised without retaliation against those who dare speak out against majority opinion. At times it is the means by which a voice crying in the wilderness can find an audience." (See, e.g., "Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind. Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all." Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60 (1960).)

I guess, while I would not differ with the basic doctrine approving anonymous speech (with such a distinguished historical foundation), I do think it is not compromised by modifying it in the specific context of readers' comments on a newspaper-owned Web site.

As it was put in Justice Jackson's separate opinion in Kovacs v. Cooper, 336 U.S. 77, 97 (1949): "The moving picture screen, the radio, the newspaper, the handbill, the sound truck and the street corner orator have differing natures, values, abuses and dangers. Each, in my view, is a law unto itself."

The Court has made clear that the only people who have meaningful First Amendment rights in our monopoly-media-dominated society are those who own them. And those are only rights as against government action. Editors and journalists can be fired by owners; they certainly don't have any First Amendment rights as against the owners. Even though a paper has a local monopoly, and has posted rates for the sale of advertising, it can refuse to publish an ad just because it doesn't like the content. It can attack someone in its pages and refuse to sell or give them the space to reply. (See, e.g., Miami Herald v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241 (1974), overturning as unconstitutional a Florida statute providing for precisely that right.) Clearly, the public doesn't have any First Amendment right as against the owners. (All are actions that would in most contexts be violations of the First Amendment if done by governments -- a consideration that may impact on the propriety of The Daily Iowan's recent actions.)

As the Court argued in upholding the Fairness Doctrine (now repealed) in Red Lion v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969), the Congress/FCC could have decided to require broadcast licensees to share frequencies (that is, one licensee might broadcast Sunday through Wednesday, another Thursday through Saturday -- both in the same town and on the same frequency). Therefore the much lesser Fairness Doctrine requirement was clearly permissible (i.e., the sole licensee had to (a) deal with local controversial issues of his/her choice, and (b) present a range of views, also of their choice, in doing so).

Similarly, if a privately owned newspaper can refuse to carry any letters to the editor, and refuse to permit any comments from readers about its stories on its Web page, it would seem to me perfectly permissible for it to allow only the comments of those willing to identify themselves.

Most papers will go to some considerable lengths before publishing a letter to the editor to confirm that the letter submitted to the paper has been written and sent by the person indicated as the author. Of course, once published the author's name is known. And at least two of the standards the paper will use in deciding which letters to publish, presumably, are (1) the extent to which the letter makes a worthwhile substantive contribution to the community dialog, and (2) the civility of the language employed.

By what rationale does a paper apply such relatively rigid, responsible, professional standards to the letters to the editor in its hard copy edition, and virtually none to what amount to the "e-letters to the editor" in its online edition?

If (1) there is, in fact, a problem of outrageously offensive comments about stories being placed on newspapers' Web pages (what Charis-Carlson calls "grossly inappropriate commentary"), and if (2) there is reason to believe that requiring those placing comments to identify themselves might reduce or eliminate the problem, why would it be so wrong to require those commenting to identify themselves by their actual names?

On the other hand -- like President Truman's request for "a one-handed economist," would you really want me to be a one-handed blogger? -- the printing press has been around a lot longer than the World Wide Web. (China had movable porcelain type in 1040; Korea the first metal movable type in 1230. Johannes Gutenberg was a Johannes-come-lately, waiting around in Mainz until 1439.) The Congress and the courts have taken a somewhat lenient free market approach to the Internet's wild west excesses during its baby years. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives those who provide an opportunity for online comments from others something of a base on balls when it comes to what would otherwise be the provider's liability for third-party content.

Many papers and other services have at least some mechanism for readers to flag comments of others they believe to be over the top. As Charis-Carlson notes, "in the past year we’ve [the Press-Citizen] had to kick off dozens of participants for grossly inappropriate commentary."

But that sort of thing can raise other problems -- as anyone can quickly discover when their e-mail provider gets put on an industry-wide "do not receive" list, friends no longer get their emails, and there is little to nothing they can do about it. (It's kind of similar to the "Red Channels" list of tainted actors and writers during the "anti-communist" years of Senator Joseph McCarthy.)

Privately-owned papers are not restrained by the First Amendment. They can, legally, be selective about which readers' ideas will be permitted on their Web sites, and which will be removed. When the government opens up what is called a "public forum" it cannot make such content-based distinctions between who can, and cannot, use the facility. But even though not legally required to do so, the underlying principles suggest a similar standard would also make sense for privately owned newspapers. If you're going to open up your Web site to reader comments, a community dialog, doesn't it make more sense to permit all of them?

That's the way this blog of mine has been operated. The only comments I've ever removed are those that are clearly advertising for goods or services (primarily from gambling casinos; comments appended to blog entries dealing with gambling). As long as I get my say in the blog, I think readers are entitled to their say in the comments -- though I would tend to be more tolerant of comments criticizing me than comments bordering on defamation, or invasions of privacy, regarding others, were those situations to arise.

It helps, in trying to understand both the First Amendment and the utility of considering its underlying foundations' applicability to private media as well, to lay any proposal involving speech alongside the First Amendment's purposes to see how it fares.

1. "Marketplace of ideas." It is believed that "truth" is more likely to emerge from a public dialog in which all persons and ideas can be presented and weighed.

2. "Self-governing." If a self-governing people are to have a prayer at making democracy work they must at least have access to the maximum possible range of information and opinion on public matters (whether they take advantage of that access is, of course, another matter).

3. "Checking value." The press is sometimes called "the Fourth Estate" because it is both recognized in our Bill of Rights as an important component of government and one that is totally outside of government. As every school child knows, the legislative, executive and judicial branches provide a check on each other. But the media can serve as an additional "check" as well, not only on abuses by government, but abuses by other powerful institutions as well (this week think "Wall Street").

4. "Safety valve." There is a theory/assertion that by permitting the frustrated and angry an opportunity to speak we can reduce somewhat their alternative response: violent actions of one kind or another perpetrated against the community and the elements within it they perceive to be the cause of their misery.

5. "Self-actualization." Humans belong to, as a general semanticist has observed, "the only species able to talk itself into difficulties that would otherwise not exist." We are bested by the other species -- especially squirrels -- in many ways (speed and athletic prowess; sight and hearing; survival skills; the bats' radar; etc.). Our superiority is in our ability to create and use language. Speaking and writing -- and the analytical thought that, hopefully, precedes it -- contribute to our growth as individuals, our self-actualization, with regard to the only quality that sets us apart.

To the extent those "First Amendment values" resonate with you, most if not all would seem to be served by readers' comments on newspapers' Web pages.

As Charis-Carlson concludes, permitting them is: "an act of optimism as well as commercial exploitation, but we’re betting its potential benefits of increasing conversation will outweigh the current hazards of having those conversations end in a flame out."

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1 comment:

geovani said...
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