LOCAL PERSPECTIVE
The Unruly Public Square
by Seth Cagin
Feb 06, 2010 | 1974 views | 15 15 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In some democratic countries it is illegal to deny the holocaust, even in the guise of scholarly work. People who have done this in Austria and Germany have found themselves fined or in prison. In repressive countries like China or Iran it’s the truth, even whispered, that can land a person in jail, or worse.

Only in America do we sometimes imagine that there are no limits to free speech. Indeed, the Supreme Court just extended the concept to include corporations’ right to make virtually unlimited political donations. But even in America there are in fact some limits, as expressed in our laws against libel and slander and our tradition of journalistic ethics.

And yet there is no doubt that our public square can be unruly. In Telluride, we’ve had a couple of recent examples. On The Watch website, anonymous comments attacking individuals have forced us, the website’s owners, to think hard about whether to remove the offending comments or leave them. Just this week, we posted a story about the announced intentions of a hate group to come to Telluride to picket Gay Ski Week.

Should we have published this story? And how much of this group's hate speech should we quote? We decided that our readers have a right to know the group may be headed this way, and to publish just enough of their nonsense to support our description of them as a hate group.

In the new media world of 24-hour cable TV channels, unfettered hate speech on the radio, innumerable websites allowing anonymous comments to be published, and Twitter, America’s dedication to free speech is being given a real workout. Anyone can get away with saying just about anything almost anytime the impulse comes over him or her.

In the national political arena, we see politicians lie with absolute confidence that being called out on it won’t cost them a vote. Meanwhile, citizens say almost unbelievably hateful things about politicians. Locally, in Telluride, there’s growing animus expressed toward our elected officials and government employees, if comments on our website are any indication, because they are perceived as being buffered from the economic storm that is hurting so many others in the community.

The Tea Party, for better or worse, comes home.

Now The Watch has extended its offerings to include more robust and more visible blogging. It is all but certain that some of what will be posted to our website will push the limits of what is acceptable. We will do our best to manage commentary as lightly as possible, knowing it might not be easy because we are operating in a rapidly evolving media environment.

Which brings me back to the concept of free speech.

Free speech means that anyone in America can start his or her own website, or newspaper, or stand in a public place and attempt to draw a crowd, as the hate group drawn to Gay Ski Week may try to do.

It doesn’t mean that anyone can post just anything they want to somebody else’s website, without the risk that it may be deleted. Abuse can be moderated. We don’t want to go there. So here’s to hoping that our online community can and will police itself. Schoolyard antics will only reduce the value of the forum for everyone.

So let’s avoid hate speech, personal attacks, blatant lies, and unsupported allegations of illegal or immoral activity. But don’t worry, bloggers. Those broad proscriptions still leave plenty of room for unruliness.

Comments
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Joan May
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February 11, 2010
It's one thing to report ignorant quotes by hate groups. It's another to attack anyone or anything you want without taking any responsibility for it on a blog, anonymously.

I avoid reading anonymous comments. They are usually meaner and less constructive than signed letters. I don't believe people will police their own lies (often unintended) or personal attacks if they can throw grenades without any accountability.

I would love to see the papers get rid of anonymous blog posts. They engender hatred and keep me (and others?) from reading the blogs very often.
Wilt K
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February 09, 2010
After reading all of the insightful views and opinions of the people in this blog I thought I might share my two cents. As a younger member of American society I feel my grasp on technology is fairly strong. Throughout the years watching the internet expand and change into the "monster" it has become I have come to realize one constant about it...and that is simply that if you dont do it/say it...someone else will. I am not saying applying the logic "well I cant make a difference so Ill do it anyway" is a fix or even a solvent, however I am saying if everyone else is going to speak their mind and everyone else is going to manifest their own experience in whichever way they see fit...shouldn't you and I be allowed to do just the same? We cannot control human nature...the Hitlers, Mussolini's the Neo-Nazi's and the KKK are all a product of the unpredictability of human nature...and unpredictability that will continue throughout history. I think Seth makes a good point business is business you have to adapt, make changes, and be more open to things like blogging. If your not treading water and adapting well in the paper business you very well might be writing your own tomb stone. So I believe keeping the blogging up is more helpful and beneficial to not only the community but for the paper as well. I think JW makes a lot of good points too, however I am not sure that one hurtful slanderous "lie" on a blog is enough to constitute the elimination of anonymous blogging. If 6 out of every 10 comments were emotionally upsetting and hurtful my guess would be Seth would re consider, however current reality is I just read a whole blog with amazing insightful, wise, and accepting comments. Lead by example, be courteous, share your feelings instead of forcing them, and be accepting of others and we will have done all we could to point people in the right direction. But at the end of the day when all is said and done people will do and say what they will. We can only hope for civility and humility something the majority of bloggers provide when sharing opinions. Great article, great blog, thanks!
Penel
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February 09, 2010
My years as director of a community public access TV station really tried my belief and understanding of free speech and the First Amendment of the Constitution. My station was threatened with closure by people angry with some Neo-Natzis who aired programs espousing their revisionist "history" in which they claimed that the holocaust did not happen. My response was to notify the Anti-defamation League and invite them to air alternative opinions and programs as well. The Neo-natzis finally gave up. They were so greatly outnumbered and their arguments were shown to have no real basis in truth. I believe the answer to repulsive speech is more speech not less. A festering wound heals faster when exposed to good clean oxygen. I believe in the approach of Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This is the tough challenge we must face as Americans to truly stand behind our primary values.
Seth Cagin
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February 09, 2010
Here's a really great discussion of Free Speech, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/how-the-first-amendment-works/?hp
pa-trick
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February 08, 2010
Telluride needs a picket party on this hate group! Why don't a bunch of us civil liberty-friendly people go join these obnoxious hate group morons? We can make idiotic fun of them by wearing outlandish outfits and tote stupid signs to make them more irrelevant. Wear bunny outfits and such with signs like "God hates cigarettes too", "Boycott the iPad!" and "Where's Waldo?"
J Edgar Hoover
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February 08, 2010
So, Kim..you surface..I always knew you were a double agent and a cross dresser, just like me...he he..

But speaking from the grave, lemme tell ya...you need to get everyone down on tape...just like Public Servant Wontrobski wants..he wants to know who you are..in case you are a some type of traitorous enemy of the state...you might believe in the bill of rights literally and in that case we need to know who you are...

But ya gotta be careful..old Ricky Nixon got all tripped up on the tape thing..spun him out of control...and of course, Barack Hussein Obama promised a bunch of things on YouTube but has not been held to account..which is good thing..he means to undermine our power here...

But Back To REgistration..yes, by all means and we need a silent portal into it..we need to be able to warrantless wire tap into it and have a look see for ourselfs...and we need to be able to plant info and make posts in the bloggers name...if we need a law call it the W law after GW Bush and John WOntrobski...

We need to know who you are and what you think and what you write in case you come up with a Big Idea...we dont like Big Ideas...

But back to Telluride..how did they run a TacoCart Cocaine distribution thing right there in the shadow of the Marshall's office? I thought you folks would have had that tapped and wired so to speak...ya all didnt get all wigged up in your crusade for "civil liberties" that you didnt see it right under your own nose, did you?

I mean, civil liberties, thems dangerous things..
Kim Philby
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February 08, 2010
Famous double agent says that anonymity is good for the truth...Old Wontrobski wanting to investigate every blogger, keep a log, start a file, smacks of dog catcher gone awry...

Working at a public entity entails public review...how many really have been laid off at either town? Not many, very few pay cuts, not much at all. To speak of. Prove me wrong...with the facts...

Do a chart...Pre and Post Crash Employment, Benefits, etc.

A good healthy unruly stew is exactly what the Framers wanted in our public debate...Old John would have it so that no public criticism would occur ...just like over in Red China...

State control..both places...

Not going to happen here in Telluride...

So keep it fresh, keep it live, keep it unruly, keep stirring the pot so the truth rises to the top...

FaceOnMars (nli)
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February 08, 2010
I believe blogging on newspapers sites has caught on over the past few years & might even be an integral component of revenue generation in so far as increasing impressions/clicks of ads by virtue of more activity. However, I don't know to what extent.

On the other side of the coin, I have also noticed more contentious interactions on newspaper blogs (generally speaking) which have resulted in legal action. I don't think we've seen the "shoe drop" just yet, but I believe it's inevitable that eventually there will be a landmark lawsuit which ultimately pulls the rug out from underneath newspapers' ability to facilitate blogs which don't require some degree of registration. I think it's only a matter of time. My comment is not targeted at The Watch, but the industry in general.

If a landmark legal case puts the kaibash on anonymous posting to newspapers websites, there might be enough of a financial incentive for a startup to create some sort of "clearinghouse" for blog registration ... which all newspapers could tap into. Who knows, maybe it'll be a spin off of PayPal.

Seth Cagin
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February 08, 2010
Thanks, John. You make a strong argument. A couple of points of clarification.

1. I agree that we should uphold community standards. The question is how we do it. I'm suggesting that online media will require new mechanisms of enforcement and that we must feel our way as they evolve. One mechanism The Watch will not be hesitant to use is to delete abusive posts. At other times, I will respond to abusive comments by calling them out.

2. While I cited comments of bloggers who believe that public employees are "buffered," I took care to qualify this as a "perception," as opposed to accepting it as a fact.

3. And yes, the online public arena is unruly. We cannot easily impose order on it as we do in print.
John Wontrobski
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February 08, 2010
I don't buy the argument that evolving technology necessitates a lowering of our community standards such as civility, mutual respect and truth-telling. If anything, the breakneck pace of technological change requires that we stick even closer to these timeless values.

Citizens look to newspapers for the truth about their lives and about their communities- when newspapers allow lies, sorta lies and somewhat lies under their mastheads by way of anonymous bloggers, they are abandoning their responsibilities as the fourth estate. Seth, for example, incorporates the anonymous grousing about public employees "buffered from the economic storm" into his blog entry. Those are just lies planted by anonymous bloggers spouting tired tropes about the supposedly gilded lives led by public service employees. Perhaps the Watch could make a few phone calls to the Human Resource Departments in the Towns of Mountain Village and Telluride. Those departments could tell you how "buffered" the employees they had to let go in order to meet budget needs are feeling right now- many of those laid off workers and their families had to leave the area to find work, as well. But instead of debating the facts, as posited by a reporter with a reputation to uphold, here we are debating lies, as posited by, well, who the heck knows?

I've always liked to think of Telluride as a leader community- I'd love to see the two Telluride newspapers take the lead and abolish anonymous web postings under their mastheads- their credibility and our civility level can only benefit.
Seth Cagin
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February 08, 2010
Why different policies for printed and online commentary?

There are two reasons that come most immediately to mind.

First, print is a limited commodity and all of the mechanisms are in place to edit and manage what goes into print, including editors and legal precedents regarding libel and slander. Since we only have room to publish a limited number of letters, managing them is relatively easy.

Second, the media environment is rapidly changing largely due to online technologies. The changes are much more than simply the means of publishing. As examples, we have to gather and report news differently than we used to and incorporate multi-media. Among these profound changes, we have to learn to work with "reader generated content," in the form of blogs and comments to stories. It is questionable whether news businesses that fail to do this will survive.

Old school journalists may be more comfortable in a world where the editor has absolute control over how things are published. I know that I am. But that's not the world we live in today.

Attempting to require proven identification of all who post blogs or comments -- as we do with letters we publish -- would either be logistically daunting and so expensive that it would defeat the very value of online publishing (which is so much cheaper than newsprint) or it would reduce the amount of reader generated content to the point where we are essentially not providing it.
question for Seth
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February 08, 2010
I belive the Watch requires any letter to the editor to be signed by the person authoring the letter. What makes that diffrent than allowing annonymous postings on the blog? Are they not both opinion pieces?

Yes, I do get the irony that I posted this annonymously but I though it would be a good discussion topic that Seth could shed some light on.
FaceOnMars (nli)
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February 07, 2010
Seth, I generally agree with you about anonymous posting; however, I would prefer the ability to post require registration under a positive/traceable ID. My guess is that things will eventually evolve to allow this to happen a bit more easily logistically speaking.

This is not to say it would be a panacea. Things go astray with postive ID too. If anyone recalls the old Telluride Infozone (which did require one to register under one's name), it's demise may have been partly a product of one particular individual who appeared to be a bit overzealous in so far as pushing his beliefs on everyone as much as possible.

I do think those of you who use your real names are brave, but I don't believe those of us who don't are cowards. I view it as being prudent.

By the way, I did take notice the title of the story about a "hate group" before reading your column. I found it somewhat interesting, not that I disagree with the sentiment that "hate" and fear are probably some of big driving forces related to this group. It's more that it is a somewhat "judgmental" title vs. leaning on the "objective" descriptive end of things. If it were purely commentary, then anything goes; however, as a "news story", I'm not exactly sure it's the most neutral way to put it. Not looking to give you a hard time, it's just that the way I see it we/you ought to hold overselves to a higher standard then a "group which is apparently consumed with hate". It's a subtle distinction, but one which I believe deserves a look.

I doubt very much they believe they're engaged in "hateful" practices. In fact, they probably actually believe they're doing "God's work". I personally believe this group is extremely misguided, but I don't believe (most) are engaged in this sort of activity for "hate's sake". I think hate is an adjunct to the primary reason of what's "wrong with them" in the first place.
Seth Cagin
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February 07, 2010
I actually think anonymous posting has value, and that very few people post objectionable comments. In the new media world, we would be putting our head in the sand if we tried to insist that all bloggers or commentators be registered. Newspapers like ours must adapt to the new media world, which strongly values interactive journalism. Plus there's no way to prevent false registrations. And by requiring registrations we open up a can of worms about lines of responsibility.

Sites that require registration don't do it to manage the speech. They do it to harvest data for mercantile purposes.

So George and others who have questioned anonymity online: I believe that you are going after a symptom of incivility, not the cause of it. Schoolyard taunts hidden behind anonymity are worth exactly nothing and can easily be ignored. We'll delete them, partly, yes, because they can be hurtful, but mostly because they devalue our forum, cluttering it up with nonsense.

Just look at all the posts memorializing Kevin Green. The fact that some were not signed did not lessen their value. A barrier to commenting in the form of registration, in my opinion, raises more problems than it solves.
George Harvey
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February 07, 2010
I often think of Kirk Brady and his promotion for civility in Telluride. I miss that message. Telluride has often thought of itself as a higher calling.........a civil liberties free zone, yet I know of no other community in Colorado that has a more uncivil attitude by some very loud outspoken few that is so tolerated. Isn't our strength our diversity? Yet, some very prominent few constantly promote 'limited' thinking and less compromise.

Both local newspapers should never allow anonymous postings. That would be a start towards civility.