“If the Internet is Such a Glorious Forum For Free Expression, Why Does it Make Newspaper Editors So Uncomfortable?”

That is one of the questions Prince Lobel partner Robert A. Bertsche and a panel of newspaper reporters and editors, an ethicist, a school superintendent, and journalism scholars addressed at an eye-opening panel sponsored recently by The Day newspaper in New London, Connecticut.  The panel was convened in response to a "readers’ comment" page run amok, causing editors to question whether — despite their First Amendment sympathies — they should bar certain speech in order to prevent the "free flow of ideas" from turning into a "sewer."  

As Rob wrote in an op-ed piece published in The Day on May 18, 2008, 

The First Amendment is intended to encourage and protect frank, fierce debate and sometimes outrageous expression.  That makes the Internet — where every individual can have a say — a fertile breeding ground for democracy…but it also means that much of what is posted will be irrelevant, silly, tasteless, ill-informed, and even hurtful.

Even when readers’ comments are defamatory or invade privacy, the law does not require that newspapers take them down.  That means editors concerned about online civility cannot hide behind the law, but must instead face a very unsettling question, whether "it is the obligation of the newspaper, especially a community newspaper, to concern itself not simply with encouraging ‘more speech,’ but also encouraging ‘better speech’: speech that is not destructive, uncivil, or pointlessly hurtful."  

If the newspaper decides it has such an obligation, then "editors — despite their libertarian instincts — must be willing to take down posts that do not meet those standards."  Rob and other op-ed writers suggest a number of tools and techniques by which that can be accomplished.   

For more information on this topic, please contact Robert A. Bertsche of Prince Lobel’s Media and Intellectual Property Groups at 617 456 8018 or rbertsche@princelobel.com.