Government barking at the door of free speech

Back when I was a babe in the woods, the Oklahoma Press Association asked a few of us jour­nalism professors to visit the state's newsrooms. We offered help " if the editor wanted it, of course.

It was a time when anonymous columns " because they were so well read " were popping up in a few community newspapers. Readers could call in without giving their names, say their piece or vent their spleen, and the newspaper would print the comments. On one day I visited, the paper had allowed one particularly nasty caller to trash (and I suspect libel) the local high school football coach. I don't remember the issue, but I remember the spitefulness. How could such a personal attack be published, I wondered, let alone without the accuser's name?

Today, with my idealism in check, I realize those may have been the good ole days of talking smack. Instead of becoming kinder and gentler people, the Internet has exacerbated the cruelty in us. The Web has become such an outlet for anonymous maliciousness that, not surprisingly, the courts are reacting.

Justice Joan Madden of the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan recently forced Google to give up the name of an anonymous blogger who called model Liskula Cohen "a psychotic, lying, whoring, still going to clubs at her age, skank." Google unmasked the blogger as Rosemary Port, a 29-year-old Fashion Institute of Technology student. Cohen sued for defamation.  

"It's like the Wild West out there," said Judy Gibbs Robinson, a former reporter for The Associated Press and The Oklahoman and currently editorial adviser for The Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma. "It's an anything-goes environment. I can't imagine allowing somebody to take vicious potshots at an institution or an individual and then hide behind anonymity." 

The courts will try to balance protection for the right to communicate (the First Amendment) with the need to hold persons accountable for what they say. That's reasonable, but when courts order the name of an anonymous writer to be revealed, it can't be all that good for free speech. The fear is that rulings such as Madden's may cause a chilling effect on people speaking anonymously.

"The blogosphere is so wide-open that I don't think that ruling alone is going to have a huge impact on shutting down anonymous communication," said David Craig, a journalism ethics professor at OU and associate dean for academic affairs. "But I think it'll make some people think twice.

"The Internet comes with benefits as well as difficulties, like the extreme nastiness that some people make under cover of anonymity, but I'm worried about the fallout of clamping down via formal regulation."

Craig said self-regulation, people challenging themselves and each other to do the right thing online, is the ideal.

Barbara Allen, a former Tulsa World editor and reporter and currently advisor of The Daily O'Collegian at Oklahoma State University, said, "This is a country that supports a free press and freedom of expression, and one that has very thoughtful laws about what is and what is not considered protected speech. I cannot support the kind of paternalist view that suggests 'nastiness' is something the government should attempt to control or regulate. It truly flies in the face of the foundation of this country."

She said information consumers are becoming savvier and less inclined to believe something just because it's on the Internet.

"We teach in journalism that anonymous sources should be used exceedingly sparingly," she said, "and avoided if at all possible." 

My old boss, Al Neuharth, retired chairman of Gannett Co. Inc., and founder of USA Today, told his editors: "All unnamed sources should be banned by all in the media."

Add to that the blogosphere's unidentified writers. Bloggers " who may or may not have journalism ethics training " might consider Neuharth's wisdom and do their part to keep government from barking at the door of free speech.  

Willis, a former Muskogee Phoenix managing editor, once served as faculty adviser for the student-run Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of "Saving Jack: A Man's Struggle with Breast Cancer."

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