"There is no comfort if you really believe in liberty. You're just not going to have any comfort; you're going to have conflict."
--John Andrew Rice
"You never ever try to push a noble cause with nastiness. The nastiness cancels out the nobility."
--Rev. Emanuel Cleaver II
When The Marshall Democrat-News launched an updated Web site in fall 2007, it included new features supporting reader comments and conversation, including the freewheeling Speak Out on the front page.
In the more than two years since, the discussion feature of the site has become -- simultaneously -- the most popular, most reviled, most interesting, most disgusting, most useful, most wasteful aspect of the paper's offerings.
Two aspects of the discussion feature attract the most ire from those who dislike it: 1) comments are made anonymously and 2) comments are not screened by staff in advance.
It's a blessing -- and a curse (as TV detective "Monk" so often says of his special abilities).
Anonymity and lack of prior screening mean that some people believe they can get away with saying whatever is on their minds without fear of reprisal. If their comments are deemed offensive, they get deleted, sometimes in a few minutes, sometimes in a few hours.
We have deleted the accounts of a number of people who went too far, too often.
The blessing of this system is that we really learn what's on readers' minds. Unfettered conversations are often surprising, entertaining and enlightening.
And if local government officials are paying attention, they can learn what their constituents think about their decisions. Government officials often hear from the community's "squeaky wheels," but online, anonymity increases the number and variety of people who feel safe stating their minds.
We ignore those views at our peril, even if they are stated in rough and sometimes rude terms.
We regularly get good story ideas from our online conversations. People ask questions; we seek answers. People make accusations; we investigate. In that respect, open forums are good for local democracy.
The curse, however, is that some people cannot resist abusing a privilege or exploiting a freedom. That's people for you.
More and more readers have had enough of the bad behavior. So have we.
We are making a change in enforcement.
From now on, there will be less tolerance for comments that exhibit disrespect for others, for others' ideas and for others' beliefs.
Please note our policy:
"The Marshall Democrat-News invites readers to share their views and questions on any issue. Open discussions are often useful and enlightening. Criticism is acceptable as an important part of public conversations, but we expect everyone to treat others with respect. Experience suggests it is best not to post comments while angry. We reserve the right to delete comments that we think include personal attacks, are disrespectful, threatening, obscene or in other ways objectionable. Anyone who repeatedly violates this policy will be banned from participating in our forums."
--Do not disrespect the privacy and views of others;
--Do not use the community forums for commercial purposes, including the promotion of any specific goods or services;
--Do not post obscene, profane, sexually explicit, libelous, slanderous, defamatory, harmful, threatening, illegal or knowingly false information;
--Do not post blatant expressions of bigotry, racism or hate, material encouraging conduct that may constitute or contribute to a criminal offense, give rise to civil liability or violate any national, state or local law, regulation or authority, or any other material which Rust Communications finds objectionable;
--Do not use the community forums for unlawful purposes;
--Do not impersonate another person;
--Do not allow any other person or entity to use your identification to post or view comments; and
--Do not post material that infringes on the copyright or other intellectual property rights of others or the privacy and publicity rights of others.
John Andrew Rice, quoted above, is right. But Rice was kicked out of the school he founded, Black Mountain College -- and he was asked to leave two previous faculty positions at other institutions. He was brilliant and charismatic and at some point, people just had enough of him.
Rev. Emanuel Cleaver II is also right. We can discuss issues and disagree about them without contaminating our comments with rage, hate and spite.
Criticism is still acceptable -- welcome, even. Questions and challenges and disagreements are fine. It does take a little more effort to make critical comments with courtesy, but it's worthwhile effort -- for both readers and writers.