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Jason Schaff: Freedom of speech comes with caveats

Posted: September 9, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: September 9, 2011 1:55 a.m.

For quite a while, editors at The Signal have been fending off accusations by some readers of our website, saying we are against freedom of speech because we have been deleting some readers’ comments on stories because of violations of our commenting policy.

I find this absurd mainly because any journalist owes his or her livelihood to the First Amendment. We are definitely in favor of it. What we are against is hate-mongering, libel, personal attacks and racism — the distasteful by-products of freedom of speech.

These types of behavior have become more frequent on our website — to the point that we have severely tightened our commenting policy. Instead of having a “three-strikes” policy in which readers can violate the policy three times before being permanently banned from commenting, we will now ban violators after the first violation. We feel that the policy on the website is clear, and that most of our readers don’t want to be subjected to such abusive comments.

The policy can be read on our website, so I won’t go into it here except to explain why such behavior is a problem for us at The Signal.

The Signal would never accept letters to the editor or any other reader submissions that are libelous or contain personal attacks, racist statements or other hate-mongering. That’s just not something we, or any other responsible newspaper, would publish.

First of all, such statements aren’t part of civil discourse, and second, many of the statements can be libelous, leading to lawsuits. The Signal is responsible for everything that is disseminated on its website, just like The Signal is responsible for everything printed in the newspaper.

The Internet has been an incredibly useful tool for the world, but it also has been a curse in some ways. Because it all seems to be “free and anonymous,” some people don’t believe that normal rules apply. You don’t need to pay taxes on retail sales, and you can say absolutely anything you want without any recourse on the Internet, people believe. What’s worse, you can use an alias, not your real name, when saying something.

Because you don’t have to sign your real name to it, you might say something when commenting that you would be afraid to say if you could be readily identified.

I believe that is what has happened on The Signal website.

But the same rules apply on the website as in the printed newspaper. The Internet is not some fabulous fantasyland, where you can libel people and become an ugly hate monger without consequence.

On a pure business level — we don’t have the resources to monitor people’s comments constantly. I feel that resources could be better used in reporting more news in the Santa Clarita Valley and writing relevant, engaging stories about our community, not babysitting a few hateful people.

Yes, not everybody who comments on The Signal website violate rules of decency. But a small group of people violate the rules on a consistent basis. And, unfortunately, there are always a few new people to join them at any time. That makes it a moving target.

And that’s why the rules need to be tightened.

The editors at any newspaper are hired to put together the best possible product. Our website is a very important part of our product in 2011, and we edit it just like our printed newspaper. The same rules apply. That’s why we’re tightening our website commenting policy. It’s the responsible thing to do, I believe.

Commenting on our website was made available to readers to discuss the issues of the day in a civil manner to foster greater awareness of issues in the Santa Clarita Valley — not to go on racial diatribes and to attack people personally.

That behavior is just not acceptable to us at The Signal, and to most people in our community.

Thanks to all the readers who read our newspaper and our website and engage with us and other readers in a responsible manner. We appreciate hearing from you. We’ll debate anybody on a civil level.

Thanks again for reading.

Jason Schaff is executive editor of The Signal.


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