At Large : Who said that?
Gradual refinement of the rules and standards has had a beneficial effect on the mvtimes.com Comment feature. At the same time, the truth is that there has been only the slightest refinement of the debating approaches taken by some veteran comment posters who prefer to slash and burn. Still, the tone of comment posts has improved.
Also, the monitor has gotten smarter. For instance, someone drew my attention to the obscene acronym one poster used as his or her signature, so now, no matter the opinion offered, nothing over that silly, sordid signature appears.
And, then there are one or two posters who skulk through the comment universe using different fictional disguises to post, although they began their commenting lives posting over their own names. Their early posts were so unrelievedly nasty that we asked them directly to curb the wickedness or be banished. Furtively, they've tempered their worst selves, so we indulge their posts, but we know who they are, and we know what they're doing.
There is a lingering issue haunting many comment conversations. Some comment posters who apparently use their real names argue that every poster should do the same. The posters who use pseudonyms counter that doing so is unnecessary and could be harmful to them in this small community. Unsurprisingly, the expressed opinions on each side contradict each other.
Although people generally believe that here, in contrast to illiberal Venezuela or Iran, you can say what you want about public matters great and small, they also believe - oblivious to the contradiction - that certain views ought to be suppressed, typically views they do not hold, or hold to be too vulgar to see the light of day. Out of a fuzzy understanding of the First Amendment prohibition against laws that would abridge the freedom of speech or of the press, this willingness to allow freedom of speech to be trimmed to taste arises. Why allow know-nothing yahoos to embarrass or discomfit us by shouting calumnies at Jews, Americans, Christians, Muslims, the president of the United States, immigrants, or, you name it.
The Comment feature invites mvtimes.com visitors to post comments in real time on news, editorials, features, and information posted on the site. It is an attempt to enlarge the conversation between the newspaper and its readers, and among those readers, by making it more of a flowing, day to day, two-way street. The feature resembles the daily experience of pedestrians walking through the Boston Common, where evangelists for a variety of causes hold court. They do so anonymously and vigorously. Some attract listeners, some don't. Some of them appear deranged and disreputable, but they endure.
They are not required to identify themselves, to post bonds, to get a license from the city, or to register as lobbyists. They may not assault or interfere with uninterested or unsympathetic passersby - or urinate on the sidewalk - but otherwise, the government, thanks to the First Amendment, may not assault or interfere with these public speakers.
I suspect these committed apostles of various political and religious causes do not identify themselves because they see no need to do so. After all, they reason, why would it mean anything to know that Joe Demented insists that the United State abandon its ties with Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or China, or Tibet or, well, whatever. And, of course, Joe is right. It is the opinion which may or may not register, to be evaluated or ignored by a listener or a reader - these proselytizers often wield signs - not the name that matters. Or not.
The principle applies to online comments. But, why does it not apply to Letters to the Editor, you may - as others do - ask. We do require signatures from participants in the print Letters to the Editor, but not the online comments. There are several reasons. First, tradition -- we have always done it thus - and because we are a private corporation, not a government agency or even a government controlled media like the TV or radio broadcasters, we can choose. And we have always chosen to require signatures on letters published in print. Besides, the web didn't offer the option 26 years ago.
Next, until now the legal requirements placed upon newspapers for responsibility, to avoid libeling newsmakers or other community members, have not been similarly applied to features that host opinions created by readers rather than newspaper employees, even though those opinions appear in newspapers' online editions. It's a phenomenon of the free-swinging world of the web.
Next, because the goal of the Comment feature is to encourage reaction to what the newspaper publishes and conversation among readers, and because no one is obliged to participate, allowing anonymous posts seems to encourage that sort of unencumbered discussion. This is also the case because, in a small community of broadly held and firmly fixed opinion, views that offend the majority may severely disadvantage the minority. That's hardly what a newspaper ought to support. Indeed, it's precisely what the Founders determined to prevent.
And, finally, if you are a fervent partisan of the First Amendment, as I am, you may come to believe, as I have, that requiring identification in every case when a citizen chooses to express an opinion online may itself be a restraint on unfettered debate. The First Amendment prohibits the Congress from imposing such a limit, and although there is no complementary prohibition that obliges you or me, or the newspaper, to be similarly hands off, if you place the value on the First Amendment that the Founders and some far less exalted followers, such as this one, do, it's a no-brainer.
We're not interested in intemperate nastiness. That's why we wrote the rules the way we did. And, I quote in part: "Comment participants agree to contribute thoughtful observations, in civil terms. Participants agree to refrain from employing insulting, vulgar, or excessively personal language. Mvtimes.com reserves the right to remove or edit posts we judge to be incompatible with this standard..." All commenters must read and agree before participating. It's not a perfect bulwark against something you or I may not like, but it's a reasonable compromise in the interests of communication among us.