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June 20, 2013
Guest Opinion: People should own up to their online comments


(June 20 -- By Gregory Favre, Special to The Bee)

The First Amendment is 45 words long - 45 words with extraordinarily powerful meaning, 45 words that have been legally challenged time and time again, collecting a few bruises along the way but still quite healthy, thank goodness.

"The First Amendment is easy to understand," the late Jim Carey, a brilliant journalism professor and author of a wonderful collection of essays, "Communication as Culture," often explained to his students. "It says that the government can't tell you how to worship. It says that if you have something to say you can say it. If you want to, you can write it down and publish it. If you want to talk about it with others, you can assemble. And if you have a grievance, you can let the government know about it, and nobody can stop you."

The men who adopted the First Amendment were not journalistic innocents, nor were they lovers of newspapers. The journalism of their day made no pretense to political objectivity or fairness. It was pointed and partisan and filled with distortions. Today, in a number of cases, we are witnessing similar kinds of journalism, especially on cable and in some print publications.

Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton used their newspapers to attack their opposition. And remember that some of the same delegates who sat in the First Congress later passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, suggesting that implications of free speech and free press were still obscure.

But you have to wonder how the discussion would have gone if the Internet and all of the ornaments hanging on it had existed back then. What would Madison and his colleagues have thought about the preponderance of brutal, so often obscene anonymous comments that attack websites everywhere? The key word here is anonymous.

Just look at what happened in recent days. Cheerios and the national anthem are words that you wouldn't think of naturally being linked together, much less in the same sentence. But separately they provoked a cauldron filled with the spittle of racism to be dumped on innocent people. All done behind the shield of anonymity.

What brought on this outbreak of prejudice? Cheerios produced a commercial featuring a biracial family, and an 11-year-old Latino boy sang the national anthem at a Spurs-Heat NBA playoff game. No-nos in the land of bigotry. The Spurs, to their lasting credit, invited the youngster back to sing at the next game.

Those two examples are just the latest in a practice that has become pervasive in our society. Newspapers whose standards would never allow someone to attack another person anonymously in print allow it online. So do other mainstream media outlets, and that doesn't account for the non-mainstream outlets.

Yes, there is an overuse of anonymous sources in too many publications, but that's not the same as allowing these racist rants. Withholding the name of a source to secure important information, an approach that should be the last resort, is one thing. OK'ing name-calling without any filters is something else.

You can rationalize that the Web is different and therefore different rules are needed. You can even brag about the number of comments you receive on your site. Whatever makes you feel good.

The fact is that allowing these divisive and despicable comments to flourish makes you a partner. Perhaps an unwilling partner, but a partner nevertheless.

Everyone has the right to express himself or herself, just as professor Carey explained in eloquent terms for his students. And that right needs to be constantly and strongly defended. But shouldn't you have the courage to put a name next to the words? If you really believe what you are saying, why hide behind an unrecognizable handle?

The core value of connecting people and communities together is seemingly becoming obsolete. More and more people are using their computers and tablets and phones to franchise division and collision in our society, and the media are helping them.

Too many of the clanging chains of bitterness and bigotry that have tethered us to the past have not been cut and, in fact, are now being strengthened by the wizardry of technology.

When Cheerios, a really fine breakfast food, and a sweet rendition of the national anthem sung by a dedicated and talented youngster register 6.0 on the racist scale, something is terribly amiss.

It's time to change some policies. Let's begin with making people own their comments.

Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Bee and vice president of news for The McClatchy Co.

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