The Double-Edged Sword of Online Free Speech

From a functional perspective, I think that the First Amendment is the most important amendment in the bunch, because it ensures that the people can denounce any injustices the government perpetrates.  To be sure, various other amendments bar greater evils than censorship—the Thirteenth Amendment ban of slavery springs to mind as an obvious example.  But I'd argue that, without the First Amendment, banning such evils would be harder to do as a practical matter without a legally sanctioned watchdog function of constitutional proportions.

But that said, free speech without any limits imposed by government, private party, or simple civility has its drawbacks.  Such is the topic of an interesting post by Gene Policinski, the executive director and VP of the First Amendment Center.  Mr. Policinski, clearly no foe of open discourse, points out that while the Internet has brought unparalleled ability to the masses to speak their peace on every topic known to man, it also seems to have brought about an amazing level of vitriol, unfiltered by either law or simple civility, as well.

[I]n general, we’re free to say what we want, when we want, in just about any place we choose. Therein is a modern-day dilemma: Many of our fellow citizens do just that, in ways that are amplified by the Internet’s reach. As a result, nearly two decades into the World Wide Web era, speech that once would have been limited to a private snarl, sprayed onto a wall or uttered to a small group or friends or colleagues now goes global with the touch of a few keys. . . .

By now, most who traverse the Net likely have run into the vile, the profane, the distasteful speech that seems always to lurk just a few comments down on so many Web pages, regardless of the discussion or issue.

Policinski goes on to tell of how this kind of venomous commentary popped up in the comments section of various Washington Post stories, including one about the death of former Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, who died in a car crash.  Apparently several posters opined that Ms. Howell's death was deserved because she worked for the Post, and was therefore part of the "liberal media."  (Never mind that anyone reading the Post's op-ed section these days would realize that they're far from liberal.)  And similar comments were made by unrestrained lefties commenting on the obituary of neocon patriarch Irving Kristol and a story about the recent hospitalization of Rush Limbaugh.

To the Post's credit, they removed the most offensive comments on the Howell story, in what editor Melinda Henneberger called a kind of "no shirt, no shoes, no service" policy.  It's unclear whether they took the same action in the case of the Kristol and Limbaugh stories.  But despite being one with no love for either Kristol or Limbaugh, I hope the Post did.  Because this sort of speech, while legal, only serves to bring down the level of discourse that a free society needs to function.

I've seen both sides of it, myself.  When I was at The Christian Science Monitor, we didn't allow comments, largely due to management's misunderstanding of the state of the law.  (At the time, we were completely unaware of the protection of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  Instead, we thought Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy still applied, thus making us liable for any comments we posted if we edited them—and we would have edited at least for style, if nothing else.  Thus, we decided not to post any comments for fear of liability.  This confusion actually went a long way in getting me interested in law school.) 

I always thought this was disappointing, because I figured the stories could be that much better if people weighed in with their thoughts and perspectives.  Indeed, while I felt (and still feel) the Monitor does an excellent job at offering a fair, unbiased take on national and international events, I thought that getting the readership involved would improve things that much more, getting a thoughtful dialogue going about the events of the day.

How naive I was.

After I left the Monitor's full-time employ (though I'm still a part-time blogger for them), the paper did indeed implement a comment system for at least some of its stories.  Unfortunately, I found that while some of the comments that the Monitor's readership posts are thoughtful, an alarming percentage of them were the same old screaming, inane partisanship without reason or civility that one finds all over the Internet.  It's all shouts of "Liberals are fascist communists who want to kill our elderly" or "Conservatives are gun-toting, xenophobic, fundamentalist Nazis."  Frankly, I thought people reading the Monitor's stories were better than that.  Certainly, some—hopefully most—of them were.  But those people weren't the ones posting.

This is not to single out the Monitor, of course.  The comments on the Monitor stories probably contained fewer instances of venom than those on other newspaper sites, like those of the Boston Globe, New York Times, or Washington Post.  But it's so bad now that I simply don't read the comments any more because all they do is make me angry.  (And it's not just those sharing my political biases who'd be angry —the comments are read would piss off my opposite number just as much, more's the pity.)  Indeed, Policinski notes that it's gotten so bad that some newspapers, like The Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois, are simply shutting their comment sections down.  The bile-to-thoughtful comment ratio just weighs too much towards the bile side.

It's deeply unfortunate, because such comments, like the Internet generally, could be such a positive tool for communicating ideas.  In many cases of course, it still is.  But the way such comments have devolved into morasses of spite show that free speech, empowered by technology, is no panacea.  There still needs to be some kind of limit on speech, and while it shouldn't be marked out by law, simple civility doesn't seem to be delineating it either.

I close with Policinski's last paragraph, which I think says it well:

How terribly ironic — and disappointing — it will be if we find that even as technology has made it possible for more people than ever before to express themselves freely, many don’t say anything worth hearing.

(Arthur Bright is a third-year law student at the Boston University School of Law and a former CMLP Legal Intern. Before attending law school, Arthur was the online news editor at The Christian Science Monitor.)

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