At Large : Yes, there are rules. And, there is discretion.
I noticed a heartfelt cry for help among the posts to the online Letters to the Editor column this week. The issue was why the commenter's posts, at least some of them, had failed to appear.
He or she — you can't be sure just reading the handles commenters adopt for posting purposes —wanted to know, "What are the standards /guidelines regarding which posts get put on the web site and which do not? Are guidelines written somewhere or is it an arbitrary decision of the moderator? The reason I ask is I tried twice to post my opinion and was rejected both times. My post contained no racism, anti-Semitism, threats, or the usual ad hominem attacks posted in this forum. At the very least I am owed an explanation. My email is entered along with my comments, please use it to communicate what it was about my posts that was so beyond the pale that others' eyes could not be exposed to them. I can't understand how a paper that regularly posts pictures of dead animals (many of them killed in less than humane fashion) could find my opinion about the best way to put an animal out of its misery too offensive to publish. I understand you are busy and have to make a lot of judgements others may not agree with. But I feel you have really dropped the ball on this one." (As it appears here, the comment is unedited, although there are grammar or spelling errors. That's because if an editor messes with these things, how can a reader be sure he hasn't messed with other things, for instance the intentions of the commenter.)
I use this column as the vehicle for responding to the commenter, for the benefit of the wider audience. Plus, the rules or standards are meant for all commenters to consider and embrace. The newspaper doesn't want to be the gatekeeper of ideas, only of their tasteful expression.
First off, these are the rules, as reproduced for each and every aspiring poster, each and every time he or she creates a post. And, they are rules to which each poster must agree before proceeding.
"The Times invites mvtimes.com visitors to comment on news, editorials, features, and information posted on the site. Except for brief excerpts from quoted material, comments must be wholly the work of the site visitor, who may not impersonate others for the purpose of posting, and who will be held entirely responsible for his or her posts.
"Mvtimes.com expects the Comment feature on mvtimes.com will host a variety of views and sentiments, vigorously expressed, including posts that may be distasteful to some visitors to the site. The goal of the feature is to reveal, not to mask, and certainly not to exclude, the disparate views of readers, including those with which the newspaper does not agree, and for which it takes no responsibility.
"Comment participants agree to contribute thoughtful observations, in civil terms. Participants agree to refrain from employing insulting, vulgar, repetitive, antagonistic, tasteless, or excessively personal language.
Mvtimes.com reserves the right to remove or edit posts we judge to be incompatible with this standard, those that are unreasonably long, or those containing copies of previously published material, including copyrighted material, not written by the poster. Repeat offenses will result in removal of posts and revocation of posting privileges.
"Mvtimes.com invites participants who believe a comment does not comply to these standards to alert the Webmaster by clicking on the 'Report this post' link next to it. The comment will be reviewed and if necessary, appropriate action will be taken.
"MV Times staff members, full- and part-time, as well as regular columnists on the Editorial pages must use their own full names when they post comments. Posts by such Times staff and contributors will be highlighted among the posts."
But, rules don't cover everything. If you believe they might, if you just create more and more of them — pile them higher than the national debt, even — the way the Congress seems to do, you will certainly be disappointed, as many of us certainly are. It's rare that rules prevent common misanthropic or unsociable activities or attitudes. The reason that so many of you behave so nicely toward one another is because your nature, training, upbringing, education, role models, and generous wells of sympathy lead you to do so. With the others, well, we just have to cope. Because I am the one who must read and decide whether to post each proffered post, and because this is a privately owned newspaper that can pick and choose in this matter as in others, I exercise discretion.
Ah, but I can hear a bruised and frustrated poster reply, "Your discretion sucks." Although I think you might have put it more decorously, I get the point. And I say, you may be right.
Still, what we're looking for here is a broadly ranging, spirited, humane comment universe, where great latitude is extended to all points of view, and to sharp debate and disturbing opinions.
There are several conclusions I've drawn over the last couple of years doing this comment-reviewing. The first is that among the commenters themselves, as opposed to at the newspaper, all views or opinions are not welcome. This correlates with the nation's widely held commitment to free speech and freedom of the press, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That actual commitment, as opposed to the Bill of Rights' ideal expression of it is, among most Americans, to views and opinions that mirror their own. They are not similarly committed to freedom of speech or the press as regarding the views or opinions with which they disagree. This is annually confirmed in polling by the First Amendment Center. And, it is confirmed as well by nearly each and every one of the requests we've received to have this or that offensive post pulled down.
This rather pinched view of free speech also contributes to the frequent calls to require posters to use their real names. While it is true that the impact of an opinion may be greater if the author is well-known and widely admired, the opinion itself is the thing, after all. Foolishness pronounced by a big shot of some sort is still foolishness. An insightful comment by Elmer Fudd is a comment worth considering. (Note: pseudonyms in the form of curses composed as acronyms get axed.)
Plus, who knows if the commenters who profess to give their real names are really who they say they are. We don't. I suspect the critics who demand real names really hope that such a tactic will discourage opinions they find unwelcome and permit the social intimidation of the folks who hold such views. We don't want to be party to that.
This long effort to invite comments and encourage self-modulation by the commenters and sensitivity to those who read what a commenter has written has made some progress. I've said so before in this space. But, the work continues and, sigh, the final conclusion is that it may never end.