About Those Anonymous Comments

Our friend Michael DeVault the other day commented in one of our posts on the practice of anonymous comments online about public officials. His opinion was that,

“…in this country, when we criticize our government — elected *or* appointed — we should sign our names.”

That’s certainly a valid opinion. And one with which we completely disagree.

We here at Lincoln Parish News Online (LPNO) allow ALL comments, anonymous or otherwise. We are proud to say that to date there have been over 1700 reader comments submitted, and we have deleted only three or four of them. And those were obviously spam.

We subscribe to the theory that the antidote to unpopular free speech is yet more free speech.

Here’s an opinion piece in the American Journalism Review we ran across last year by E. W. Scripps School of Journalism Professor Bill Reader:

In Response

Banning unsigned online comments undermines the media’s role as a forum for debate.

After a Boston editor received complaints about the potential abuse of anonymity in the reader comments he published, he announced that he would collect the writers’ real names and make them public if need be. Editors of some other newspapers announced they would do the same.

Detractors quickly decried the idea as antithetical to the principles of press freedom. One writer called the move a “despotic scheme of government”; another said it was an attempt by “our aristocratical gentry” to silence the voice of the common citizen. In the end, Editor Benjamin Russell abandoned his plan and continued to publish unsigned commentary, much of it heated and vitriolic, in his Massachusetts Centinel.

The year was 1787. The opponents to his “real name” policy were the Anti-Federalists. And the debate was over what became the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In an era when the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does not apply to public employees who point out the mistakes of their superiors, and people can lose their jobs for making statements that somebody might construe as “disrespectful,” real people with serious opinions need anonymity to exercise their most basic democratic rights: to dissent, to criticize, to advocate and to debate controversies. If journalists try to silence the “haters and hollerers” by banning anonymous comments online, they also will silence the poor, the vulnerable and the dispossessed. Such a ban would represent a drastic overreaction.

As Rieder points out, anonymity is misused by some, and egregiously so. But anonymity isn’t the problem; lack of editing is. There are ways to curb abuses in the forums, whether using high-tech solutions or good old-fashioned editing.

We in the Fourth Estate should be defenders and practi-tioners of the First Amendment. We should temper our professional disdain with a realization that, on the whole, anonymity is the one true cultural equalizer, and that it is what the First Amendment was meant to protect all along.

We were impressed with Professor Reader’s column – so much so that we emailed him and he sent us another piece he had written for the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

An Ethical “Blind Spot”: Problems of Anonymous Letters to the Editor

We think it hilarious to see publishers and editors of today’s newspapers cower in fear of some anonymous letter writer or some internet poster sitting around in his pajamas, yet tell us every day how they bravely stand up to presidents, ambassadors and senators by “speaking truth to power.”

What these editors and publishers are REALLY afraid of is the prospect of the unwashed having the ability to talk back to them.

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5 Responses to “About Those Anonymous Comments”

  1. Anonymouse Says:

    What are “Anonymous Commnets”? Just askin’.

  2. The truth Says:

    Hahaha!! That was a cowardly move, abb. What are you afraid of? Being exposed as a hypocrite? Keep lying to your readers…they’ll never know the difference. You and I know the truth.

    The Lie”Stoppers” mantra: If you can’t take the heat, delete!

    Good luck to you.

    – krddurham

  3. DR Donald Leavitt Says:

    Anonymity is essential to free speech. Often it touches a vital issue which the newspaper are afraid to address. For example, many states allow psychiatrists to forcibly incarcerate their patients. In a state known for its
    mardi gras, such is a common occurence, without evidence. Both the leading Psychiatric Association and a state agency with power to regulate such abuses refuse to consider complaints of such blatant illegal activities by doctors. A major newspaper of the state refuses to look into an report such matters, It refuses to print letters by persons so humiliated and embarased by such actions without insisting onprinting the name of the
    writer to further injure the victim; or is it because it does not care to support the public interest by revealing this danger because it would cost that profession fees and power? The psychiatrists needn’t fear their name being used, but the newspaper may fear the power of this prestigous and
    wealtlhy group. Thus the issue is suppressed and the state remains the 4th highest in level of forced civil incarcerations and first in criminal prisoners.
    The press may use the First Amendment to fatten its profits, but not to serve the public welfare or publish the real news.

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