Walter Pierce

RE: Comments Welcome

by Walter Pierce

Scrubbing off the graffiti is a constant chore It’s been widely understood since long before teenagers discovered spray paint that anonymity promotes bile; it allows for the saying of things most of us would think twice about uttering in an interpersonal setting. Digital anonymity has been promoting the worst, lowest common denominator discourse since Windows 95 dialed up the Internet. Now it’s taking over my neighborhood.
We’ve long liked to believe here at 551 Jefferson St. that Independent Weekly readers are a refined bunch, articulate and educated and given to civil discourse. In large measure they are, at least insofar as the demographic inclined to read the printed version — the actual newspaper — is concerned. But the Internet, as I’ve observed before, is a public square in a sprawling city where pimps and rag collectors swill beer and nosh sausage in close proximity to the wine and cheese crowd, leading the editorial board onto some slippery surfaces as we develop criteria for judging whether a comment should be posted.
This used to not be a problem; at one time anyone could post anything, completely anonymously. But that begged a vexing question: Are we responsible for the acts of defamation of others? I don’t know if that question has been satisfactorily answered. In redress, for a time readers who posted comments were required to also register their e-mail address. But that transparency all but killed the comments, which led to our current system: Readers may post using only a screen name, but comments must be vetted by a member of the editorial board, who is notified via e-mail when a new comment is submitted. It mostly works, allowing us to nix comments that are defamatory or contain profanity or personal attacks.
But there remains a gray area as wide and choppy as Vermilion Bay. By way of example, enjoy this nugget of empathy posted to the Aug. 27 blog speculating about Crowley native Victoria Reggie Kennedy assuming her late husband’s Senate seat by a reader identified as Sydney Ray: “People are such fools. Admiring the scum of Ted Kennedy, who was a true clone of his despicable father. May they all meet in hell for the ruin they have caused and will continue to cause. There are some cases when grave-stomping is called for.” It is a crass, vile, ugly thing to say about the recently departed. But we approved it without approving of it; it’s on our Web site now. It wasn’t the consensus to allow the comment to be posted, but the conclusion that sunlight is the best disinfectant won the day: Sydney Ray is a small, angry soul; better to let this rat crawl out from the cupboard and across the kitchen floor. At least that way we know we have rats. And sure enough, the more sensible among us stepped forward to challenge Sydney Ray’s astonishing lack of couth. Now, to a large extent, the thread of comments attached to that story has become a forum on speaking ill of the dead, and not a discussion on the merits of Ted Kennedy’s contributions to American civic life. 
So we soldier on, wrangling the comments, hoping that reasonable discourse will prevail, stung when it frequently isn’t. For now, the policy is to bar comments that defame, use profanity, or commit ugly personal attacks against local people. Going forward, when a comment is barred from the site, we’ll notify the violator with an explanation — in the comment section, because we know criminals like to return to the scene of the crime — of why the comment was not posted. It is our way of keeping as free of graffiti as possible.