Do you have an inalienable right to anonymously spew hate speech in our comments section or anyone else's?
That's a question that's been thrown around a lot lately, mostly by anonymous online commenters, in response to a pair of NAACP letters to local news outlets asking them to consider the impact of the comments sections and how they're managed. In the letters, NAACP acting President Donn Peterson explained that he and others have been disturbed by an uptick in racist, hateful comments in the wake of 19-year-old David Josiah Lawson's death.
If there was a veil hiding Humboldt County's racial tensions from view, the fatal stabbing of the Humboldt State University sophomore ripped it off. In the two months that have followed Lawson's death, we've heard some minority members of our community say they don't feel safe in our county, which is 82 percent white. They've spoken of suffering racism both covert and overt, acts systemic and singular, and bias explicit and implicit.
While this has resulted in some very real and productive conversation in print, in forums and in council chambers, over coffee and even in some comments sections, it has also led to the pervasive spewing of hate speech by anonymous cowards and trolls.
What, the NAACP urged us to ask, is our role — both as a media company and individual community members — in all this? After spending some time reflecting on the issues, this seems an appropriate time to share with you, our readers, some insight into how we operate and why, and what we're trying to do better.
So, back to that initial question: If we delete your racist comment from our website are we infringing on your rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution? Absolutely not. Neither we nor any other media outlet has that power. We can't keep you from expressing your opinion, thinking or saying hateful things, or even from starting your own blog to post whatever rantings you want. But we do have an absolute right to manage our newspaper and our website, and we've committed to doing it in a way that aligns with our values. So if you want to share your opinion with our readers, online or in print, you need to conform to our rules, which are designed around maintaining a culture of respect and civility.
In order to leave comments on our site, readers need to register — a quick process that involves setting up an account with a name and email address. We think there's value in allowing anonymous comments — think of the whistleblowers commenting from within government institutions, the vulnerable giving voice to an unpopular opinion, the domestic violence victim wanting to share his or her story. We also think there's value in accountability — hence the requirement to set up an account. And we do moderate our online comments, regularly scrolling through them to watch out for hate speech, personal attacks or criminal accusations. When something crosses those lines, we delete it. When someone habitually crosses them, we block him or her from commenting on the site.
If registration has kept you from contributing your viewpoint to a civil, constructive conversation, that's unfortunate. It's an imperfect solution and no doubt it costs us in valuable reader engagement, not to mention clicks. But we believe it's worth the sacrifice for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, we want to make sure our newspaper and website are inclusive places, where readers can come without fear of being demeaned and verbally assaulted. That's not to say readers won't find viewpoints with which they disagree or even find abhorrent — a democracy can't function if those are actively stifled. But it does mean those viewpoints will be shared with respect and civility.
Again we land on those words — respect and civility — so it seems appropriate to note that we view them as integral parts of the larger culture we hope the Journal reflects and promotes. We hope these ideals show in our reporting and the editorial decisions we make on a daily basis. For example, we try to be conscientious and make sure we're not doing anything to dehumanize those we write about — whether they're arrested, addicted, homeless or anything else. It's a slippery slope, after all, and a snarky swipe at the addict arrested for the fourth time in a week can quickly give the impression that people who don't act like us or look like us aren't worthy of basic human respect and compassion.
In a study of comments blocked from its site over 15 years, The Guardian found that women, people of color, LGBTQ people and religious minorities bore the brunt of abuse that ranged from garden variety trolling and insults to violent threats, including rape and murder. Disappointingly but perhaps not surprisingly, The Guardian also found that its reporters who fell into one of the aforementioned minority groups were much more likely to suffer anonymous abuse online, a kind of emotional tax on writers doing the same work as their colleagues but shouldering an additional burden. This can have the effect of discouraging the targets of that abuse from writing about controversial topics or entering journalism at all. Over time, it can wear down even the most resilient people. That's unfair and we want no part of it.
Last week, KHSU's Lorna Bryant hosted a far-reaching discussion on hate speech versus free speech with a number of participants, including Lost Coast Outpost editor Hank Sims, who said there's a lot of value in having a comment section essentially serve as an open forum, allowing bigotry to be put on display and preserved as a snapshot of a community at a point in time. We disagree.
We feel that maintaining such a section stifles the voices of those who are reluctant to risk being dogpiled for sharing their perspectives. And how can we say the comment section at the end of an article is an open forum when women, people of color and LGBTQ folks have to wade through vitriol and threats to participate? Instead, we feel this risks holding up a funhouse mirror in which their views are shrunken or absent and those of angry bigots are magnified, leaving us with a warped reflection of our community.
The Journal is working, slowly but surely, to include more voices from across the spectrum of our county. In order to do that, we need to provide a safe, civil and respectful forum for those voices to be heard. It would be disingenuous to invite members of the community to contribute only to hang them out like virtual piñatas for anonymous trolls.
So, Humboldt, if you have some thoughts — on this or anything else — we'd love to hear them. And if you have a story to tell, we'd love to give you space to tell it. But we're going to have to insist that you do it respectfully and thoughtfully. Otherwise, take your voice elsewhere or keep silent. You are always welcome here. Your hate speech is not.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the Journal's arts and features editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill. Thadeus Greenson is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.