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Oh Behave!

In his ruling, Delaware Chief Justice Myron Steele also compared anonymous Internet speech to anonymous political pamphleteering, a practice the U.S. Supreme Court has apparently found to be "an honorable tradition of advocacy and dissent." (Bad choice for comparison if you ask
The Delaware Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a group of anonymous bloggers in a defamation suit, saying in essence that free speech trumps defamation. (If that's true, there is no point to the concept of defamation.)

In his ruling, Delaware Chief Justice Myron Steele also compared anonymous Internet speech to anonymous political pamphleteering, a practice the U.S. Supreme Court has apparently found to be "an honorable tradition of advocacy and dissent." (Bad choice for comparison if you ask me since characterizing the latter as a gutless tradition of cowardly attacks would be more accurate.) And that 1995 ruling seems contradictory. We insist on the identification of the sponsors behind political advertising - so why would pamphlets be treated any differently?The AP report also quoted Steele as saying that plaintiffs who feel wronged by anonymous online comments can use the Internet to respond to character attacks and "generally set the record straight." He also said blogs and chatrooms tend to be vehicles for people to express opinions, not facts.

That seems pretty naive to me.

Once something hits the Internet - it's out there, with the potential for all kinds of permutations, additions and revisions. It takes on a life of its own, and could be out there in some form indefinitely. It's laughable to think you'd have a prayer of a rebuttal reaching even half the people who saw the initial posting, never mind the follow up comments and other versions.

In addition, I would posit that opinion can be far more dangerous than fact. Just ask any company victimized by those urban legends floating around the Internet that otherwise sensible people continually take as gospel. Procter & Gamble, for one, has certainly had a devil of a time suppressing all the baloney cooked up online about its supposed links to Satan.

Delaware's ruling is just the latest in a series of reports that all seem to have at their core the idea that anything online, and more specific to this note, blogging, is some sort of "you can't touch this - or me" free-for-all. Nuh-uh. Blogging is not a license for irresponsible, slanderous or cruel behavior.

When you blog online, you are essentially taking what might otherwise go into your private conversations or journals, and making it public. As soon as you do that, your responsibility to the public kicks in.

I'm not saying bloggers aren't entitled to their opinion - heck, I am very opinionated, and I'd hate for someone to shut me down, but freedom of speech is not a license to cause harm. Having the right to say what you think comes with the unsaid expectation of responsible behavior. Or at least it should. Especially under the cloak of anonymity.

We have to snap ourselves out of this wide-eyed fantasy land where the mere fact that something is executed online gives it a cache or breaks it might not otherwise have, and seemingly the freedom to be as wretched as we want. In the case of blogging, it means bloggers are not by definition journalists (though many journalists blog). Bloggers are not free to attack their coworkers or spill company secrets in a public sphere with impunity, and, Delaware's ruling aside, they should not be allowed to defame people under the guise of free speech. Most bloggers are just people yakking online to anyone who will listen.

Was the pol in Delaware defamed? I don't know, and well, the cynic in me says probably not. There are few choices you can make that open your life and motives up to public scrutiny more than politics. It's no place for the easily bruised. But this ruling is noteworthy because it will be applied well beyond this case, perhaps to an incident where there will be defamation.

Free Speech is a bedrock American right, and it has to be protected, as does the right to anonymous commentary, but it's too bad some people can't just grow up, and say what they have to say without getting all juvenile about it.

But then again, a generation raised on winner-take-all shouting matches masquerading as talk radio and TV panel discussions probably can't be expected to understand the basics of polite discourse. Maybe it's time for a version of "Everything I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten" for the web.