Newspapers: Stop Hiding Behind The First Amendment

by Jason Falls |
Jason Falls
Jason Falls

I’m proud to say the first legal action that may (I have my fingers firmly crossed) smack newspapers right across the face for allowing their website commentors to post anonymously could stem from a case developing here in my home state of Kentucky. Kymberly Clem, a student at Eastern Kentucky University, is suing the Richmond Register and an online commentor known as 12bme for defamation.

Clem was kicked out of a mall in August of last year for allegedly wearing a dress that was too revealing. She bought it at the same mall the day before. The commenter claimed on the Register’s story of the event that she was actually kicked out for exposing herself to a woman and her children who commented on the dress.

Clem’s attorney says the person fabricated something and represented it as fact. That’s defamation.

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Of course, the Richmond Register is hiding behind the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, saying the paper and the commenter both have the right to speak freely in a public forum. Certainly they’re just trying to avoid paying Clem a bunch of money. Surely the people who run the Richmond Register aren’t dumb enough to believe their own argument.

The short-sighted “principles” of the newspaper industry in allowing people to comment anonymously on their websites is the primary reason most people fear public discourse on websites and blogs today. Calling the people who frequent them “people” is sometimes a stretch. The spirit of the First Amendment is to ensure that people aren’t censored and should not fear retribution for honest and fair discourse. It is not meant to protect spineless dweebs who just want to spew rumors and hate and see how many curse words they can get away with before being thrown out of the room.

A newspaper website’s comments section isn’t a public forum in the spirit of the law, either. A public forum is a town hall meeting, a political rally or an venue to discuss matters of import in the interest of public good. A newspaper website’s comments section is just a place for readers to ask for clarification, chime in with their opinion or participate in conversations around the subject. They have no greater impact that the discussions themselves.

And, of course, the fact that newspapers have allowed the dredges of the web world to rum amok on their sites means these “public forums,” while read by many of the community elite, are populated mostly by a nation of turds.

My hope is that Clem wins and newspapers everywhere do what they should have done years ago: Hold the readers and commentors accountable and responsible for their words and actions. When they do, the quality of discourse on the sites will multiply by 1,000 overnight.

If we aren’t free to see the speaker, then the speech isn’t truly free.

Agree? Not? The comments are yours.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).