Speech carries responsibility

Published 12:35 am Sunday, August 2, 2009

When The Selma Times-Journal updated its Web site about a year ago, the company made a decision to allow comments on stories.

Those comments would encourage more readership and reader interaction — two goals of this newspaper and its Web site. The thought behind all that is the newsgathering portion of the paper would benefit from various ideas for further stories by the people who comment.

The standard with most newspapers is to allow pseudonyms or nicknames for those who comment. That process isunlike the letters to the editor, which must have a name, address and a telephone number to confirm the writer’s identity.

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Recently, the newspaper’s management has taken off several comments because those people said things deemed in violation of the agreement between the user and the newspaper as to hurtful, damaging speech and vulgar language.

The selmatimesjournal.com is not the only newspaper site working with such issues.

Dealing with inappropriate comments has been a topic for concern among newspaper editors and publishers nationwide and at publications much larger than The Selma Times Journal.

The selmatimesjournal.com receives almost a half-million hits in a single month. Many people comment on various stories and videos posted to that site. The newspaper’s management cannot read every comment from every individual. There is a button on the Web page for someone to flag a comment for management to examine and decide if it is inappropriate. The newspaper gives those flagged comments careful consideration.

When a comment is removed, it is not a means of restricting anyone’s free speech. Freedom from government censorship is different from a community newspaper’s decisions to balance news with a responsibility to a broader public.

There are standards in every community that determine and prevent the flow of inflammatory or tasteless speech. This community’s standards indicate racist, homophobic and tasteless speech will not be tolerated.

The selmatimesjournal.com welcomes comments about any subject posted. I am not suggesting we should not be able to criticize government, organizations or individuals. That’s the essence of free speech. But unchecked, this kind of talk may also be very dangerous.

In other words, speech is free, but not everything is always appropriate for the comment section at selmatimesjournal.com. And when that speech becomes inappropriate, the newspaper will take measures to remove it or close down the comment sections altogether.