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So what about the First Amendment?

June 7, 2009
Messenger News

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the First Amendment.

There are those who think they are entitled. under the First Amendment, to post comments on The Messenger's Web site and that if those comments are disabled, their free speech is being denied.

That is not the case.

Free speech is one of five protections under the First Amendment. It means you have to right to say - short of the famous example of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater - what you want to say.

A newspaper does not infringe upon your right to free speech by denying you the privilege of posting on its privately owned Web site. Newspapers, which are also protected under the First Amendment, have an obligation, wherever possible, to prevent themselves from being used by people who want to use the newspaper's platform to spread misinformation, malicious statements and outright lies.

While The Messenger is not the final arbiter of all that is true, we can often recognize baseless accusations and character assaults.

Criticizing an elected official's work performance in a civilized manner, that is, without using vulgar language or pure speculation, is generally permitted. Criticizing that person's spouse or the condition of their marriage is not.

Commenting that a person who has been arrested "probably has a rap sheet as long as my arm" is inappropriate because the commenter obviously doesn't know if the person has a criminal history. The same people who seem distressed that The Messenger might try to infringe on their freedom of speech sometimes have less of a problem infringing upon the rights of people who are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Sometimes specific comments are disabled by Web site administrators because of the content or tone of the comment. Sometimes, all comments on a particular article are disabled because we have seen the language and tone of commenters on previous stories on the same or similar topics. Short of assigning someone to monitor every comment, 24 hours a day, the solution is to disallow all comments.

When an editor accidentally failed to disable comments on a recent controversial story, the comments that made it online - in just a matter of hours - were frightening in the sense that they showed how anonymity can create an electronic lynch mob, ready to string up whomever they feel is guilty.

By the way, e-mailing me or any of the staff and trying to goad us into running your comments by asking us if we're "scared," doesn't really help your cause. In my 30-plus years in journalism, I have been threatened and accused of many things - in person, online, by mail and over the phone. Merely suggesting that I am scared is hardly enough to motivate me to let you rant.

If you have a valid point and you want to send a signed letter to the editor, feel free. If you want to post a hateful, rumor-filled or stupid comment anonymously, find another site.

Barbara Wallace Hughes is the managing editor of The Messenger.



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