Our freedom of speech is now on Facebook

Posted by Ralph Schwartz on September 13, 2013 

Freedom of speech is the right, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, to express beliefs or ideas without unwarranted government restriction.

It does not guarantee the right to have your publication in a private business, or to have your comments posted on a newspaper's website.

Even so, we at The Bellingham Herald encourage commenting for the simple reason that it engenders community by encouraging dialogue. Contrary to what some think, comments don't generate "clicks" and therefore digital ad revenue for us. Once a person visits a page, his or her return visits to check the comments or add a new comment do not get counted.

Court decisions have largely protected offensive speech, short of "fighting words" and obscenity. Americans and Internet commenters are used to a lot of freedom when it comes to giving offense.

Making people angry and "fighting words" are two different things. Police and school officials could do nothing in January when the property owner of the residential construction site at 95 Hawthorn Road refused to take down a sign that antagonized his Edgemoor neighbors -- even though it threatened to shoot potential thieves and was posted across the street from the entrance to Fairhaven Middle School days after the Sandy Hook school massacre.

(Full disclosure: I have a child at Fairhaven.)

"As insensitive as it is, there's nothing the school or the PTSA can do about it, " said Greg McCracken, then co-president of the Fairhaven PTSA. "It's free speech, and he's got the right to do it."

The sign remains there to this day.

As comments on The Bellingham Herald website have amply demonstrated, people particularly enjoy pushing the boundaries of legal offensiveness online, too. In my observation, this has been aided by people's ability to hide behind a fake name. It's easier to come close to "fighting words" if nobody can actually come and find you to fight you.

(At least a quick search of county records or the Herald's archives yields the owner of 95 Hawthorn: Elliott Fine.)

Starting Sunday, all commenting on bellinghamherald.com, including on the blogs, will be through Facebook. When we did this at my previous employer, the Skagit Valley Herald, it had more than a chilling effect on the comments. It had a killing effect on them. In the short time I had left there, I don't know if I ever saw another story comment.

But please don't let the medium of Facebook deter you from continuing the conversation I have enjoyed with you over the past year. Come next week, I look forward to talking some more and maybe even making a few more "Friends."

 

 

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