Monday, March 20, 2006

Posts that go too far

One of the features at Stowe Reporter Online is the Reader’s Forum, a message board where people can post comments about local news and issues. I’m the gatekeeper for the forum — posts get emailed to me first before going live and then I manually activate the post before it goes into the forum.

I think this filter is important. As of late I’ve received a couple of post submittals that I’ve deleted before allowing them to go live, for various reasons.

One of those reasons is the post contains defamatory statements that could constitute libel, which is the legal term that describes defamation in writing. Here’s an example of a post I received by email on Feb. 10. Names and places have been replaced with "XXXXXXX," though the rest of the post remains as submitted:

"I / we lived in Vermont for about two years ...The term Flat Lander is a real attitude locals have towards anyone who comes to the area ...They forget that they were once ‘newcomers,’ and that the land originally belonged to the Indians. XXXXXXX stalk anyone coming out of a bar and XXXXXXX is a lying SOB. There is work for Electricians if you’re willing to work for $12.00 an hour with no benefits or future. Secretarial is about $8.00 per hour and if you’re new, you’ll get all the crummy hours, especially if you work at XXXXXXX in XXXXXXX. (Wouldn’t let my spouse go to her nieces dance recital for 30 minutes) ... Unless you’re wealthy and can afford top notch digs, real estate is expensive and there are the XXXXXXX, who will lie, cheat, and not return your deposit money nor pay you for work you did for their husband when he was in a bind. (Yes XXXXXXX, you still owe me $500.00). We left Vermont and did not shed a tear!"

Online libel continues to be debated in courts. According to the First Amendment Center, in the 2003 case of Batzel v. Cremers, "a defamatory e-mail message was sent to a Web-site operator, who edited the message and selected it for posting. The operator said he believed the sender intended the message to be made public. The sender, however, later claimed that he never intended the information to be made public; he merely wanted the site operator to be aware of it."

In the above post there are several allegations of fact masked as opinion, relating to several specific people and local organizations. Although the Reporter certainly wants to enable readers to speak their mind about local topics, posts such as these go too far. The newspaper — because we offer this online forum on our Web site — could potentially be held accountable for libel statements, especially because people can post anonymously.

Would the same hold true for a blog? The New York Times reported in October 2005 that "if an elected official claims he has been defamed by an anonymous blogger, he cannot use a lawsuit to unmask the writer unless he has substantial evidence to prove his claim." That decision came from the Delaware Supreme Court.


— Scott Monroe


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