How far for free speech?

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by Mary Turck, 7/7/08 • “Stick your political correctness up your ass.” So begins one of the comments we recently received (and posted.)

We post almost every legit comment that we receive. By “legit,” I mean comments that are not spam or advertising/self promotion. The very few that we refuse to post are overtly racist, probably libelous, or personal attacks of the “I know him personally and he is a crook/liar/shoplifter/child abuser” variety.

Obviously, we print a lot of comments that we disagree with. We do so in the interest of fostering dialogue and civic engagement. I’m not sure this always works. At times, comments seem downright nasty.

Two recent comments pose the issue clearly:

Troy Wodele, 5/20/08 • I have a very difficult time reading news on both the Star and Tribune and the Pioneer Press’ websites, primarily because of the comments sections at the end of the article. Invariably, I find myself reading them, despite the fact that most of the rants are racist, sexist, and ill informed. I’m not sure why the two papers put up with this type of discourse. They are not required to post every response, so why do they?

In addition, as an educator, I am also appalled at the grammar and spelling that is displayed in many of these comments.

Marcia Lynx Qualey, 5/21/08 • Why do newspapers—and I’ll add the St. Cloud Times to the list, as they hosted hundreds of hateful comments after the recent service-dog story—allow their websites to become forums for unmoderated hate? They certainly wouldn’t allow that to happen in print. Interactive doesn’t have to mean “anything goes.”

It’s damaging to the community and does not fit with a responsible media-outlet’s mission.

The Des Moines Register has given a great deal of thought to on-line conversation. They have come up with some guidelines that look pretty good to me:

Our updated standards make the distinction between offensive opinion and offensive approach.

As we are alerted to them, we reserve the right to remove comments including these types of specific information or language:

– Libel. In general terms, that means a comment that includes a false statement of fact that actually harms a person’s reputation (as opposed to insulting or offending them). …

– Sexually explicit or crude sexual comments about someone.

– Threatening statements or statements that suggests violent acts against someone.

– Crude comments about a child.

– Swearing or obscenity.

– Derogatory phrases to define a group of people.

– Nasty name-calling (language such as “moron” and “white trash”).

But we will allow opinions some will find offensive.

We will allow conversation that is simply strident in tone.

We will allow criticism of public officials.

We will allow criticism of people who are subjects of stories.

We will allow opinions that some may find offensive about tough social issues around race and sexual orientation, as long as they don’t include the kind of specific language described above.

I like the tone of the Des Moines Register policy, though it goes farther than we do in limiting comments. Other suggestions for limiting comments include:

1) require registration for anyone posting a comment
2) refuse to post anonymous comments
3) put up a button that readers can use to flag “objectionable” comments

I’m not sure that we need a more defined comment policy, but I’m open to conversation about it. Comment away!